More stories

  • in

    Janabel Xia: Algorithms, dance rhythms, and the drive to succeed

    Senior math major Janabel Xia is a study of a person in constant motion.When she isn’t sorting algorithms and improving traffic control systems for driverless vehicles, she’s dancing as a member of at least four dance clubs. She’s joined several social justice organizations, worked on cryptography and web authentication technology, and created a polling app that allows users to vote anonymously.In her final semester, she’s putting the pedal to the metal, with a green light to lessen the carbon footprint of urban transportation by using sensors at traffic light intersections.First stepsGrowing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Janabel has been competing on math teams since elementary school. On her math team, which met early mornings before the start of school, she discovered a love of problem-solving that challenged her more than her classroom “plug-and-chug exercises.”At Lexington High School, she was math team captain, a two-time Math Olympiad attendee, and a silver medalist for Team USA at the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad.As a math major, she studies combinatorics and theoretical computer science, including theoretical and applied cryptography. In her sophomore year, she was a researcher in the Cryptography and Information Security Group at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where she conducted cryptanalysis research under Professor Vinod Vaikuntanathan.Part of her interests in cryptography stem from the beauty of the underlying mathematics itself — the field feels like clever engineering with mathematical tools. But another part of her interest in cryptography stems from its political dimensions, including its potential to fundamentally change existing power structures and governance. Xia and students at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University created zkPoll, a private polling app written with the Circom programming language, that allows users to create polls for specific sets of people, while generating a zero-knowledge proof that keeps personal information hidden to decrease negative voting influences from public perception.Her participation in the PKG Center’s Active Community Engagement Freshman Pre-Orientation Program introduced her to local community organizations focusing on food security, housing for formerly incarcerated individuals, and access to health care. She is also part of Reading for Revolution, a student book club that discusses race, class, and working-class movements within MIT and the Greater Boston area.Xia’s educational journey led to her ongoing pursuit of combining mathematical and computational methods in areas adjacent to urban planning.  “When I realized how much planning was concerned with social justice as it was concerned with design, I became more attracted to the field.”Going on autopilotShe took classes with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and is currently working on an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project with Professor Cathy Wu in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.Recent work on eco-driving by Wu and doctoral student Vindula Jayawardana investigated semi-autonomous vehicles that communicate with sensors localized at traffic intersections, which in theory could reduce carbon emissions by up to 21 percent.Xia aims to optimize the implementation scheme for these sensors at traffic intersections, considering a graded scheme where perhaps only 20 percent of all sensors are initially installed, and more sensors get added in waves. She wants to maximize the emission reduction rates at each step of the process, as well as ensure there is no unnecessary installation and de-installation of such sensors.  Dance numbersMeanwhile, Xia has been a member of MIT’s Fixation, Ridonkulous, and MissBehavior groups, and as a traditional Chinese dance choreographer for the MIT Asian Dance Team. A dancer since she was 3, Xia started with Chinese traditional dance, and later added ballet and jazz. Because she is as much of a dancer as a researcher, she has figured out how to make her schedule work.“Production weeks are always madness, with dancers running straight from class to dress rehearsals and shows all evening and coming back early next morning to take down lights and roll up marley [material that covers the stage floor],” she says. “As busy as it keeps me, I couldn’t have survived MIT without dance. I love the discipline, creativity, and most importantly the teamwork that dance demands of us. I really love the dance community here with my whole heart. These friends have inspired me and given me the love to power me through MIT.”Xia lives with her fellow Dance Team members at the off-campus Women’s Independent Living Group (WILG).  “I really value WILG’s culture of independence, both in lifestyle — cooking, cleaning up after yourself, managing house facilities, etc. — and thought — questioning norms, staying away from status games, finding new passions.”In addition to her UROP, she’s wrapping up some graduation requirements, finishing up a research paper on sorting algorithms from her summer at the University of Minnesota Duluth Research Experience for Undergraduates in combinatorics, and deciding between PhD programs in math and computer science.  “My biggest goal right now is to figure out how to combine my interests in mathematics and urban studies, and more broadly connect technical perspectives with human-centered work in a way that feels right to me,” she says.“Overall, MIT has given me so many avenues to explore that I would have never thought about before coming here, for which I’m infinitely grateful. Every time I find something new, it’s hard for me not to find it cool. There’s just so much out there to learn about. While it can feel overwhelming at times, I hope to continue that learning and exploration for the rest of my life.” More

  • in

    This 3D printer can figure out how to print with an unknown material

    While 3D printing has exploded in popularity, many of the plastic materials these printers use to create objects cannot be easily recycled. While new sustainable materials are emerging for use in 3D printing, they remain difficult to adopt because 3D printer settings need to be adjusted for each material, a process generally done by hand.

    To print a new material from scratch, one must typically set up to 100 parameters in software that controls how the printer will extrude the material as it fabricates an object. Commonly used materials, like mass-manufactured polymers, have established sets of parameters that were perfected through tedious, trial-and-error processes.

    But the properties of renewable and recyclable materials can fluctuate widely based on their composition, so fixed parameter sets are nearly impossible to create. In this case, users must come up with all these parameters by hand.

    Researchers tackled this problem by developing a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of an unknown material on its own.

    A collaborative team from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Center for Scientific Research in Greece (Demokritos) modified the extruder, the “heart” of a 3D printer, so it can measure the forces and flow of a material.

    These data, gathered through a 20-minute test, are fed into a mathematical function that is used to automatically generate printing parameters. These parameters can be entered into off-the-shelf 3D printing software and used to print with a never-before-seen material. 

    The automatically generated parameters can replace about half of the parameters that typically must be tuned by hand. In a series of test prints with unique materials, including several renewable materials, the researchers showed that their method can consistently produce viable parameters.

    This research could help to reduce the environmental impact of additive manufacturing, which typically relies on nonrecyclable polymers and resins derived from fossil fuels.

    “In this paper, we demonstrate a method that can take all these interesting materials that are bio-based and made from various sustainable sources and show that the printer can figure out by itself how to print those materials. The goal is to make 3D printing more sustainable,” says senior author Neil Gershenfeld, who leads CBA.

    His co-authors include first author Jake Read a graduate student in the CBA who led the printer development; Jonathan Seppala, a chemical engineer in the Materials Science and Engineering Division of NIST; Filippos Tourlomousis, a former CBA postdoc who now heads the Autonomous Science Lab at Demokritos; James Warren, who leads the Materials Genome Program at NIST; and Nicole Bakker, a research assistant at CBA. The research is published in the journal Integrating Materials and Manufacturing Innovation.

    Shifting material properties

    In fused filament fabrication (FFF), which is often used in rapid prototyping, molten polymers are extruded through a heated nozzle layer-by-layer to build a part. Software, called a slicer, provides instructions to the machine, but the slicer must be configured to work with a particular material.

    Using renewable or recycled materials in an FFF 3D printer is especially challenging because there are so many variables that affect the material properties.

    For instance, a bio-based polymer or resin might be composed of different mixes of plants based on the season. The properties of recycled materials also vary widely based on what is available to recycle.

    “In ‘Back to the Future,’ there is a ‘Mr. Fusion’ blender where Doc just throws whatever he has into the blender and it works [as a power source for the DeLorean time machine]. That is the same idea here. Ideally, with plastics recycling, you could just shred what you have and print with it. But, with current feed-forward systems, that won’t work because if your filament changes significantly during the print, everything would break,” Read says.

    To overcome these challenges, the researchers developed a 3D printer and workflow to automatically identify viable process parameters for any unknown material.

    They started with a 3D printer their lab had previously developed that can capture data and provide feedback as it operates. The researchers added three instruments to the machine’s extruder that take measurements which are used to calculate parameters.

    A load cell measures the pressure being exerted on the printing filament, while a feed rate sensor measures the thickness of the filament and the actual rate at which it is being fed through the printer.

    “This fusion of measurement, modeling, and manufacturing is at the heart of the collaboration between NIST and CBA, as we work develop what we’ve termed ‘computational metrology,’” says Warren.

    These measurements can be used to calculate the two most important, yet difficult to determine, printing parameters: flow rate and temperature. Nearly half of all print settings in standard software are related to these two parameters. 

    Deriving a dataset

    Once they had the new instruments in place, the researchers developed a 20-minute test that generates a series of temperature and pressure readings at different flow rates. Essentially, the test involves setting the print nozzle at its hottest temperature, flowing the material through at a fixed rate, and then turning the heater off.

    “It was really difficult to figure out how to make that test work. Trying to find the limits of the extruder means that you are going to break the extruder pretty often while you are testing it. The notion of turning the heater off and just passively taking measurements was the ‘aha’ moment,” says Read.

    These data are entered into a function that automatically generates real parameters for the material and machine configuration, based on relative temperature and pressure inputs. The user can then enter those parameters into 3D printing software and generate instructions for the printer.

    In experiments with six different materials, several of which were bio-based, the method automatically generated viable parameters that consistently led to successful prints of a complex object.

    Moving forward, the researchers plan to integrate this process with 3D printing software so parameters don’t need to be entered manually. In addition, they want to enhance their workflow by incorporating a thermodynamic model of the hot end, which is the part of the printer that melts the filament.

    This collaboration is now more broadly developing computational metrology, in which the output of a measurement is a predictive model rather than just a parameter. The researchers will be applying this in other areas of advanced manufacturing, as well as in expanding access to metrology.

    “By developing a new method for the automatic generation of process parameters for fused filament fabrication, this study opens the door to the use of recycled and bio-based filaments that have variable and unknown behaviors. Importantly, this enhances the potential for digital manufacturing technology to utilize locally sourced sustainable materials,” says Alysia Garmulewicz, an associate professor in the Faculty of Administration and Economics at the University of Santiago in Chile who was not involved with this work.

    This research is supported, in part, by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Center for Bits and Atoms Consortia. More

  • in

    Putting AI into the hands of people with problems to solve

    As Media Lab students in 2010, Karthik Dinakar SM ’12, PhD ’17 and Birago Jones SM ’12 teamed up for a class project to build a tool that would help content moderation teams at companies like Twitter (now X) and YouTube. The project generated a huge amount of excitement, and the researchers were invited to give a demonstration at a cyberbullying summit at the White House — they just had to get the thing working.

    The day before the White House event, Dinakar spent hours trying to put together a working demo that could identify concerning posts on Twitter. Around 11 p.m., he called Jones to say he was giving up.

    Then Jones decided to look at the data. It turned out Dinakar’s model was flagging the right types of posts, but the posters were using teenage slang terms and other indirect language that Dinakar didn’t pick up on. The problem wasn’t the model; it was the disconnect between Dinakar and the teens he was trying to help.

    “We realized then, right before we got to the White House, that the people building these models should not be folks who are just machine-learning engineers,” Dinakar says. “They should be people who best understand their data.”

    The insight led the researchers to develop point-and-click tools that allow nonexperts to build machine-learning models. Those tools became the basis for Pienso, which today is helping people build large language models for detecting misinformation, human trafficking, weapons sales, and more, without writing any code.

    “These kinds of applications are important to us because our roots are in cyberbullying and understanding how to use AI for things that really help humanity,” says Jones.

    As for the early version of the system shown at the White House, the founders ended up collaborating with students at nearby schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to let them train the models.

    “The models those kids trained were so much better and nuanced than anything I could’ve ever come up with,” Dinakar says. “Birago and I had this big ‘Aha!’ moment where we realized empowering domain experts — which is different from democratizing AI — was the best path forward.”

    A project with purpose

    Jones and Dinakar met as graduate students in the Software Agents research group of the MIT Media Lab. Their work on what became Pienso started in Course 6.864 (Natural Language Processing) and continued until they earned their master’s degrees in 2012.

    It turned out 2010 wasn’t the last time the founders were invited to the White House to demo their project. The work generated a lot of enthusiasm, but the founders worked on Pienso part time until 2016, when Dinakar finished his PhD at MIT and deep learning began to explode in popularity.

    “We’re still connected to many people around campus,” Dinakar says. “The exposure we had at MIT, the melding of human and computer interfaces, widened our understanding. Our philosophy at Pienso couldn’t be possible without the vibrancy of MIT’s campus.”

    The founders also credit MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) and Startup Accelerator (STEX) for connecting them to early partners.

    One early partner was SkyUK. The company’s customer success team used Pienso to build models to understand their customer’s most common problems. Today those models are helping to process half a million customer calls a day, and the founders say they have saved the company over £7 million pounds to date by shortening the length of calls into the company’s call center.

    “The difference between democratizing AI and empowering people with AI comes down to who understands the data best — you or a doctor or a journalist or someone who works with customers every day?” Jones says. “Those are the people who should be creating the models. That’s how you get insights out of your data.”

    In 2020, just as Covid-19 outbreaks began in the U.S., government officials contacted the founders to use their tool to better understand the emerging disease. Pienso helped experts in virology and infectious disease set up machine-learning models to mine thousands of research articles about coronaviruses. Dinakar says they later learned the work helped the government identify and strengthen critical supply chains for drugs, including the popular antiviral remdesivir.

    “Those compounds were surfaced by a team that did not know deep learning but was able to use our platform,” Dinakar says.

    Building a better AI future

    Because Pienso can run on internal servers and cloud infrastructure, the founders say it offers an alternative for businesses being forced to donate their data by using services offered by other AI companies.

    “The Pienso interface is a series of web apps stitched together,” Dinakar explains. “You can think of it like an Adobe Photoshop for large language models, but in the web. You can point and import data without writing a line of code. You can refine the data, prepare it for deep learning, analyze it, give it structure if it’s not labeled or annotated, and you can walk away with fine-tuned, large language model in a matter of 25 minutes.”

    Earlier this year, Pienso announced a partnership with GraphCore, which provides a faster, more efficient computing platform for machine learning. The founders say the partnership will further lower barriers to leveraging AI by dramatically reducing latency.

    “If you’re building an interactive AI platform, users aren’t going to have a cup of coffee every time they click a button,” Dinakar says. “It needs to be fast and responsive.”

    The founders believe their solution is enabling a future where more effective AI models are developed for specific use cases by the people who are most familiar with the problems they are trying to solve.

    “No one model can do everything,” Dinakar says. “Everyone’s application is different, their needs are different, their data is different. It’s highly unlikely that one model will do everything for you. It’s about bringing a garden of models together and allowing them to collaborate with each other and orchestrating them in a way that makes sense — and the people doing that orchestration should be the people who understand the data best.” More

  • in

    Co-creating climate futures with real-time data and spatial storytelling

    Virtual story worlds and game engines aren’t just for video games anymore. They are now tools for scientists and storytellers to digitally twin existing physical spaces and then turn them into vessels to dream up speculative climate stories and build collective designs of the future. That’s the theory and practice behind the MIT WORLDING initiative.

    Twice this year, WORLDING matched world-class climate story teams working in XR (extended reality) with relevant labs and researchers across MIT. One global group returned for a virtual gathering online in partnership with Unity for Humanity, while another met for one weekend in person, hosted at the MIT Media Lab.

    “We are witnessing the birth of an emergent field that fuses climate science, urban planning, real-time 3D engines, nonfiction storytelling, and speculative fiction, and it is all fueled by the urgency of the climate crises,” says Katerina Cizek, lead designer of the WORLDING initiative at the Co-Creation Studio of MIT Open Documentary Lab. “Interdisciplinary teams are forming and blossoming around the planet to collectively imagine and tell stories of healthy, livable worlds in virtual 3D spaces and then finding direct ways to translate that back to earth, literally.”

    At this year’s virtual version of WORLDING, five multidisciplinary teams were selected from an open call. In a week-long series of research and development gatherings, the teams met with MIT scientists, staff, fellows, students, and graduates, as well as other leading figures in the field. Guests ranged from curators at film festivals such as Sundance and Venice, climate policy specialists, and award-winning media creators to software engineers and renowned Earth and atmosphere scientists. The teams heard from MIT scholars in diverse domains, including geomorphology, urban planning as acts of democracy, and climate researchers at MIT Media Lab.

    Mapping climate data

    “We are measuring the Earth’s environment in increasingly data-driven ways. Hundreds of terabytes of data are taken every day about our planet in order to study the Earth as a holistic system, so we can address key questions about global climate change,” explains Rachel Connolly, an MIT Media Lab research scientist focused in the “Future Worlds” research theme, in a talk to the group. “Why is this important for your work and storytelling in general? Having the capacity to understand and leverage this data is critical for those who wish to design for and successfully operate in the dynamic Earth environment.”

    Making sense of billions of data points was a key theme during this year’s sessions. In another talk, Taylor Perron, an MIT professor of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, shared how his team uses computational modeling combined with many other scientific processes to better understand how geology, climate, and life intertwine to shape the surfaces of Earth and other planets. His work resonated with one WORLDING team in particular, one aiming to digitally reconstruct the pre-Hispanic Lake Texcoco — where current day Mexico City is now situated — as a way to contrast and examine the region’s current water crisis.

    Democratizing the future

    While WORLDING approaches rely on rigorous science and the interrogation of large datasets, they are also founded on democratizing community-led approaches.

    MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning graduate Lafayette Cruise MCP ’19 met with the teams to discuss how he moved his own practice as a trained urban planner to include a futurist component involving participatory methods. “I felt we were asking the same limited questions in regards to the future we were wanting to produce. We’re very limited, very constrained, as to whose values and comforts are being centered. There are so many possibilities for how the future could be.”

    Scaling to reach billions

    This work scales from the very local to massive global populations. Climate policymakers are concerned with reaching billions of people in the line of fire. “We have a goal to reach 1 billion people with climate resilience solutions,” says Nidhi Upadhyaya, deputy director at Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. To get that reach, Upadhyaya is turning to games. “There are 3.3 billion-plus people playing video games across the world. Half of these players are women. This industry is worth $300 billion. Africa is currently among the fastest-growing gaming markets in the world, and 55 percent of the global players are in the Asia Pacific region.” She reminded the group that this conversation is about policy and how formats of mass communication can be used for policymaking, bringing about change, changing behavior, and creating empathy within audiences.

    Socially engaged game development is also connected to education at Unity Technologies, a game engine company. “We brought together our education and social impact work because we really see it as a critical flywheel for our business,” said Jessica Lindl, vice president and global head of social impact/education at Unity Technologies, in the opening talk of WORLDING. “We upscale about 900,000 students, in university and high school programs around the world, and about 800,000 adults who are actively learning and reskilling and upskilling in Unity. Ultimately resulting in our mission of the ‘world is a better place with more creators in it,’ millions of creators who reach billions of consumers — telling the world stories, and fostering a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable world.”

    Access to these technologies is key, especially the hardware. “Accessibility has been missing in XR,” explains Reginé Gilbert, who studies and teaches accessibility and disability in user experience design at New York University. “XR is being used in artificial intelligence, assistive technology, business, retail, communications, education, empathy, entertainment, recreation, events, gaming, health, rehabilitation meetings, navigation, therapy, training, video programming, virtual assistance wayfinding, and so many other uses. This is a fun fact for folks: 97.8 percent of the world hasn’t tried VR [virtual reality] yet, actually.”

    Meanwhile, new hardware is on its way. The WORLDING group got early insights into the highly anticipated Apple Vision Pro headset, which promises to integrate many forms of XR and personal computing in one device. “They’re really pushing this kind of pass-through or mixed reality,” said Dan Miller, a Unity engineer on the poly spatial team, collaborating with Apple, who described the experience of the device as “You are viewing the real world. You’re pulling up windows, you’re interacting with content. It’s a kind of spatial computing device where you have multiple apps open, whether it’s your email client next to your messaging client with a 3D game in the middle. You’re interacting with all these things in the same space and at different times.”

    “WORLDING combines our passion for social-impact storytelling and incredible innovative storytelling,” said Paisley Smith of the Unity for Humanity Program at Unity Technologies. She added, “This is an opportunity for creators to incubate their game-changing projects and connect with experts across climate, story, and technology.”

    Meeting at MIT

    In a new in-person iteration of WORLDING this year, organizers collaborated closely with Connolly at the MIT Media Lab to co-design an in-person weekend conference Oct. 25 – Nov. 7 with 45 scholars and professionals who visualize climate data at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, planetariums, and museums across the United States.

    A participant said of the event, “An incredible workshop that had had a profound effect on my understanding of climate data storytelling and how to combine different components together for a more [holistic] solution.”

    “With this gathering under our new Future Worlds banner,” says Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics chair, “the Media Lab seeks to affect human behavior and help societies everywhere to improve life here on Earth and in worlds beyond, so that all — the sentient, natural, and cosmic — worlds may flourish.” 

    “WORLDING’s virtual-only component has been our biggest strength because it has enabled a true, international cohort to gather, build, and create together. But this year, an in-person version showed broader opportunities that spatial interactivity generates — informal Q&As, physical worksheets, and larger-scale ideation, all leading to deeper trust-building,” says WORLDING producer Srushti Kamat SM ’23.

    The future and potential of WORLDING lies in the ongoing dialogue between the virtual and physical, both in the work itself and in the format of the workshops. More

  • in

    Inclusive research for social change

    Pair a decades-old program dedicated to creating research opportunities for underrepresented minorities and populations with a growing initiative committed to tackling the very issues at the heart of such disparities, and you’ll get a transformative partnership that only MIT can deliver. 

    Since 1986, the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) has led an institutional effort to prepare underrepresented students (minorities, women in STEM, or students with low socioeconomic status) for doctoral education by pairing them with MIT labs and research groups. For the past three years, the Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR), a cross-disciplinary research collaboration led by MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), has joined them in their mission, helping bring the issue full circle by providing MSRP students with the opportunity to use big data and computational tools to create impactful changes toward racial equity.

    “ICSR has further enabled our direct engagement with undergrads, both within and outside of MIT,” says Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor of the Social Sciences, associate director of IDSS, and co-organizer for the initiative. “We’ve found that this line of research has attracted students interested in examining these topics with the most rigorous methods.”

    The initiative fits well under the IDSS banner, as IDSS research seeks solutions to complex societal issues through a multidisciplinary approach that includes statistics, computation, modeling, social science methodologies, human behavior, and an understanding of complex systems. With the support of faculty and researchers from all five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the objective of ICSR is to work on an array of different societal aspects of systemic racism through a set of verticals including policing, housing, health care, and social media.

    Where passion meets impact

    Grinnell senior Mia Hines has always dreamed of using her love for computer science to support social justice. She has experience working with unhoused people and labor unions, and advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights. When applying to college, she focused her essay on using technology to help Syrian refugees.

    “As a Black woman, it’s very important to me that we focus on these areas, especially on how we can use technology to help marginalized communities,” Hines says. “And also, how do we stop technology or improve technology that is already hurting marginalized communities?”   

    Through MSRP, Hines was paired with research advisor Ufuoma Ovienmhada, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. A member of Professor Danielle Wood’s Space Enabled research group at MIT’s Media Lab, Ovienmhada received funding from an ICSR Seed Grant and NASA’s Applied Sciences Program to support her ongoing research measuring environmental injustice and socioeconomic disparities in prison landscapes. 

    “I had been doing satellite remote sensing for environmental challenges and sustainability, starting out looking at coastal ecosystems, when I learned about an issue called ‘prison ecology,’” Ovienmhada explains. “This refers to the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental justice.”

    Ovienmhada’s research uses satellite remote sensing and environmental data to characterize exposures to different environmental hazards such as air pollution, extreme heat, and flooding. “This allows others to use these datasets for real-time advocacy, in addition to creating public awareness,” she says.

    Focused especially on extreme heat, Hines used satellite remote sensing to monitor the fluctuation of temperature to assess the risk being imposed on prisoners, including death, especially in states like Texas, where 75 percent of prisons either don’t have full air conditioning or have none at all.

    “Before this project I had done little to no work with geospatial data, and as a budding data scientist, getting to work with and understanding different types of data and resources is really helpful,” Hines says. “I was also funded and afforded the flexibility to take advantage of IDSS’s Data Science and Machine Learning online course. It was really great to be able to do that and learn even more.”

    Filling the gap

    Much like Hines, Harvey Mudd senior Megan Li was specifically interested in the IDSS-supported MSRP projects. She was drawn to the interdisciplinary approach, and she seeks in her own work to apply computational methods to societal issues and to make computer science more inclusive, considerate, and ethical. 

    Working with Aurora Zhang, a grad student in IDSS’s Social and Engineering Systems PhD program, Li used county-level data on income and housing prices to quantify and visualize how affordability based on income alone varies across the United States. She then expanded the analysis to include assets and debt to determine the most common barriers to home ownership.

    “I spent my day-to-day looking at census data and writing Python scripts that could work with it,” reports Li. “I also reached out to the Census Bureau directly to learn a little bit more about how they did their data collection, and discussed questions related to some of their previous studies and working papers that I had reviewed.” 

    Outside of actual day-to-day research, Li says she learned a lot in conversations with fellow researchers, particularly changing her “skeptical view” of whether or not mortgage lending algorithms would help or hurt home buyers in the approval process. “I think I have a little bit more faith now, which is a good thing.”

    “Harvey Mudd is undergraduate-only, and while professors do run labs here, my specific research areas are not well represented,” Li says. “This opportunity was enormous in that I got the experience I need to see if this research area is actually something that I want to do long term, and I got more mirrors into what I would be doing in grad school from talking to students and getting to know faculty.”

    Closing the loop

    While participating in MSRP offered crucial research experience to Hines, the ICSR projects enabled her to engage in topics she’s passionate about and work that could drive tangible societal change.

    “The experience felt much more concrete because we were working on these very sophisticated projects, in a supportive environment where people were very excited to work with us,” she says.

    A significant benefit for Li was the chance to steer her research in alignment with her own interests. “I was actually given the opportunity to propose my own research idea, versus supporting a graduate student’s work in progress,” she explains. 

    For Ovienmhada, the pairing of the two initiatives solidifies the efforts of MSRP and closes a crucial loop in diversity, equity, and inclusion advocacy. 

    “I’ve participated in a lot of different DEI-related efforts and advocacy and one thing that always comes up is the fact that it’s not just about bringing people in, it’s also about creating an environment and opportunities that align with people’s values,” Ovienmhada says. “Programs like MSRP and ICSR create opportunities for people who want to do work that’s aligned with certain values by providing the needed mentoring and financial support.” More

  • in

    Forging climate connections across the Institute

    Climate change is the ultimate cross-cutting issue: Not limited to any one discipline, it ranges across science, technology, policy, culture, human behavior, and well beyond. The response to it likewise requires an all-of-MIT effort.

    Now, to strengthen such an effort, a new grant program spearheaded by the Climate Nucleus, the faculty committee charged with the oversight and implementation of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, aims to build up MIT’s climate leadership capacity while also supporting innovative scholarship on diverse climate-related topics and forging new connections across the Institute.

    Called the Fast Forward Faculty Fund (F^4 for short), the program has named its first cohort of six faculty members after issuing its inaugural call for proposals in April 2023. The cohort will come together throughout the year for climate leadership development programming and networking. The program provides financial support for graduate students who will work with the faculty members on the projects — the students will also participate in leadership-building activities — as well as $50,000 in flexible, discretionary funding to be used to support related activities. 

    “Climate change is a crisis that truly touches every single person on the planet,” says Noelle Selin, co-chair of the nucleus and interim director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “It’s therefore essential that we build capacity for every member of the MIT community to make sense of the problem and help address it. Through the Fast Forward Faculty Fund, our aim is to have a cohort of climate ambassadors who can embed climate everywhere at the Institute.”

    F^4 supports both faculty who would like to begin doing climate-related work, as well as faculty members who are interested in deepening their work on climate. The program has the core goal of developing cohorts of F^4 faculty and graduate students who, in addition to conducting their own research, will become climate leaders at MIT, proactively looking for ways to forge new climate connections across schools, departments, and disciplines.

    One of the projects, “Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies,” led by Professor Siqi Zheng of the MIT Center for Real Estate in collaboration with colleagues from the MIT Sloan School of Management, focuses on the roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that come from the buildings and real estate sector. Zheng notes that this sector has been slow to respond to climate change, but says that is starting to change, thanks in part to the rising awareness of climate risks and new local regulations aimed at reducing emissions from buildings.

    Using a data-driven approach, the project seeks to understand the efficient and equitable market incentives, technology solutions, and public policies that are most effective at transforming the real estate industry. Johnattan Ontiveros, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, is working with Zheng on the project.

    “We were thrilled at the incredible response we received from the MIT faculty to our call for proposals, which speaks volumes about the depth and breadth of interest in climate at MIT,” says Anne White, nucleus co-chair and vice provost and associate vice president for research. “This program makes good on key commitments of the Fast Forward plan, supporting cutting-edge new work by faculty and graduate students while helping to deepen the bench of climate leaders at MIT.”

    During the 2023-24 academic year, the F^4 faculty and graduate student cohorts will come together to discuss their projects, explore opportunities for collaboration, participate in climate leadership development, and think proactively about how to deepen interdisciplinary connections among MIT community members interested in climate change.

    The six inaugural F^4 awardees are:

    Professor Tristan Brown, History Section: Humanistic Approaches to the Climate Crisis  

    With this project, Brown aims to create a new community of practice around narrative-centric approaches to environmental and climate issues. Part of a broader humanities initiative at MIT, it brings together a global working group of interdisciplinary scholars, including Serguei Saavedra (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Or Porath (Tel Aviv University; Religion), collectively focused on examining the historical and present links between sacred places and biodiversity for the purposes of helping governments and nongovernmental organizations formulate better sustainability goals. Boyd Ruamcharoen, a PhD student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program, will work with Brown on this project.

    Professor Kerri Cahoy, departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (AeroAstro): Onboard Autonomous AI-driven Satellite Sensor Fusion for Coastal Region Monitoring

    The motivation for this project is the need for much better data collection from satellites, where technology can be “20 years behind,” says Cahoy. As part of this project, Cahoy will pursue research in the area of autonomous artificial intelligence-enabled rapid sensor fusion (which combines data from different sensors, such as radar and cameras) onboard satellites to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, specifically sea-level rise and hurricanes and flooding in coastal regions. Graduate students Madeline Anderson, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and Mary Dahl, a PhD student in AeroAstro, will work with Cahoy on this project.

    Professor Priya Donti, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: Robust Reinforcement Learning for High-Renewables Power Grids 

    With renewables like wind and solar making up a growing share of electricity generation on power grids, Donti’s project focuses on improving control methods for these distributed sources of electricity. The research will aim to create a realistic representation of the characteristics of power grid operations, and eventually inform scalable operational improvements in power systems. It will “give power systems operators faith that, OK, this conceptually is good, but it also actually works on this grid,” says Donti. PhD candidate Ana Rivera from EECS is the F^4 graduate student on the project.

    Professor Jason Jackson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP): Political Economy of the Climate Crisis: Institutions, Power and Global Governance

    This project takes a political economy approach to the climate crisis, offering a distinct lens to examine, first, the political governance challenge of mobilizing climate action and designing new institutional mechanisms to address the global and intergenerational distributional aspects of climate change; second, the economic challenge of devising new institutional approaches to equitably finance climate action; and third, the cultural challenge — and opportunity — of empowering an adaptive socio-cultural ecology through traditional knowledge and local-level social networks to achieve environmental resilience. Graduate students Chen Chu and Mrinalini Penumaka, both PhD students in DUSP, are working with Jackson on the project.

    Professor Haruko Wainwright, departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and Civil and Environmental Engineering: Low-cost Environmental Monitoring Network Technologies in Rural Communities for Addressing Climate Justice 

    This project will establish a community-based climate and environmental monitoring network in addition to a data visualization and analysis infrastructure in rural marginalized communities to better understand and address climate justice issues. The project team plans to work with rural communities in Alaska to install low-cost air and water quality, weather, and soil sensors. Graduate students Kay Whiteaker, an MS candidate in NSE, and Amandeep Singh, and MS candidate in System Design and Management at Sloan, are working with Wainwright on the project, as is David McGee, professor in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences.

    Professor Siqi Zheng, MIT Center for Real Estate and DUSP: Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies 

    See the text above for the details on this project. More

  • in

    Improving accessibility of online graphics for blind users

    The beauty of a nice infographic published alongside a news or magazine story is that it makes numeric data more accessible to the average reader. But for blind and visually impaired users, such graphics often have the opposite effect.

    For visually impaired users — who frequently rely on screen-reading software that speaks words or numbers aloud as the user moves a cursor across the screen — a graphic may be nothing more than a few words of alt text, such as a chart’s title. For instance, a map of the United States displaying population rates by county might have alt text in the HTML that says simply, “A map of the United States with population rates by county.” The data has been buried in an image, making it entirely inaccessible.

    “Charts have these various visual features that, as a [sighted] reader, you can shift your attention around, look at high-level patterns, look at individual data points, and you can do this on the fly,” says Jonathan Zong, a 2022 MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MAD) Fellow and PhD student in computer science, who points out that even when a graphic includes alt text that interprets the data, the visually impaired user must accept the findings as presented.

    “If you’re [blind and] using a screen reader, the text description imposes a linear predefined reading order. So, you’re beholden to the decisions that the person who wrote the text made about what information was important to include.”

    While some graphics do include data tables that a screen reader can read, it requires the user to remember all the data from each row and column as they move on to the next one. According to the National Federation of the Blind, Zong says, there are 7 million people living in the United States with visual disabilities, and nearly 97 percent of top-level pages on the internet are not accessible to screen readers. The problem, he points out, is an especially difficult one for blind researchers to get around. Some researchers with visual impairments rely on a sighted collaborator to read and help interpret graphics in peer-reviewed research.

    Working with the Visualization Group at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) on a project led by Associate Professor Arvind Satyanarayan that includes Daniel Hajas, a blind researcher and innovation manager at the Global Disability Innovation Hub in England, Zong and others have written an open-source Javascript software program named Olli that solves this problem when it’s included on a website. Olli is able to go from big-picture analysis of a chart to the finest grain of detail to give the user the ability to select the degree of granularity that interests them.

    “We want to design richer screen-reader experiences for visualization with a hierarchical structure, multiple ways to navigate, and descriptions at varying levels of granularity to provide self-guided, open-ended exploration for the user.”

    Next steps with Olli are incorporating multi-sensory software to integrate text and visuals with sound, such as having a musical note that moves up or down the harmonic scale to indicate the direction of data on a linear graph, and possibly even developing tactile interpretations of data. Like most of the MAD Fellows, Zong integrates his science and engineering skills with design and art to create solutions to real-world problems affecting individuals. He’s been recognized for his work in both the visual arts and computer science. He holds undergraduate degrees in computer science and visual arts with a focus on graphic design from Princeton University, where his research was on the ethics of data collection.

    “The throughline is the idea that design can help us make progress on really tough social and ethical questions,” Zong says, calling software for accessible data visualization an “intellectually rich area for design.” “We’re thinking about ways to translate charts and graphs into text descriptions that can get read aloud as speech, or thinking about other kinds of audio mappings to sonify data, and we’re even exploring some tactile methods to understand data,” he says.

    “I get really excited about design when it’s a way to both create things that are useful to people in everyday life and also make progress on larger conversations about technology and society. I think working in accessibility is a great way to do that.”

    Another problem at the intersection of technology and society is the ethics of taking user data from social media for large-scale studies without the users’ awareness. While working as a summer graduate research fellow at Cornell’s Citizens and Technology Lab, Zong helped create an open-source software called Bartleby that can be used in large anonymous data research studies. After researchers collect data, but before analysis, Bartleby would automatically send an email message to every user whose data was included, alert them to that fact and offer them the choice to review the resulting data table and opt out of the study. Bartleby was honored in the student category of Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards for 2022. In November the same year, Forbes magazine named Jonathan Zong in its Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science 2023 list for his work in data visualization accessibility.

    The underlying theme to all Zong’s work is the exploration of autonomy and agency, even in his artwork, which is heavily inclusive of text and semiotic play. In “Public Display,” he created a handmade digital display font by erasing parts of celebrity faces that were taken from a facial recognition dataset. The piece was exhibited in 2020 in MIT’s Wiesner Gallery, and received the third-place prize in the MIT Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts that year. The work deals not only with the neurological aspects of distinguishing faces from typefaces, but also with the implications for erasing individuals’ identities through the practice of using facial recognition programs that often target individuals in communities of color in unfair ways. Another of his works, “Biometric Sans,” a typography system that stretches letters based on a person’s typing speed, will be included in a show at the Harvard Science Center sometime next fall.

    “MAD, particularly the large events MAD jointly hosted, played a really important function in showing the rest of MIT that this is the kind of work we value. This is what design can look like and is capable of doing. I think it all contributes to that culture shift where this kind of interdisciplinary work can be valued, recognized, and serve the public.

    “There are shared ideas around embodiment and representation that tie these different pursuits together for me,” Zong says. “In the ethics work, and the art on surveillance, I’m thinking about whether data collectors are representing people the way they want to be seen through data. And similarly, the accessibility work is about whether we can make systems that are flexible to the way people want to use them.” More

  • in

    MIT welcomes nine MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars for 2023-24

    Established in 1990, the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program at MIT welcomes outstanding scholars to the Institute for visiting appointments. MIT aspires to attract candidates who are, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “trailblazers in human, academic, scientific and religious freedom.” The program honors King’s life and legacy by expanding and extending the reach of our community. 

    The MLK Scholars Program has welcomed more than 140 professors, practitioners, and professionals at the forefront of their respective fields to MIT. They contribute to the growth and enrichment of the community through their interactions with students, staff, and faculty. They pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy of service and social justice, and they embody MIT’s values: excellence and curiosity, openness and respect, and belonging and community.  

    Each new cohort of scholars actively participates in community engagement and supports MIT’s mission of “advancing knowledge and educating students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” 

    The 2023-2024 MLK Scholars:

    Tawanna Dillahunt is an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information with a joint appointment in their electrical engineering and computer science department. She is joining MIT at the end of a one-year visiting appointment as a Harvard Radcliffe Fellow. Her faculty hosts at the Institute are Catherine D’Ignazio in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Fotini Christia in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Dillahunt’s research focuses on equitable and inclusive computing. During her appointment, she will host a podcast to explore ethical and socially responsible ways to engage with communities, with a special emphasis on technology. 

    Kwabena Donkor is an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business; he is hosted by Dean Eckles, an associate professor of marketing at MIT Sloan School of Management. Donkor’s work bridges economics, psychology, and marketing. His scholarship combines insights from behavioral economics with data and field experiments to study social norms, identity, and how these constructs interact with policy in the marketplace.

    Denise Frazier joins MIT from Tulane University, where she is an assistant director in the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South. She is a researcher and performer and brings a unique interdisciplinary approach to her work at the intersection of cultural studies, environmental justice, and music. Frazier is hosted by Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

    Wasalu Jaco, an accomplished performer and artist, is renewing his appointment at MIT for a second year; he is hosted jointly by Nick Montfort, a professor of digital media in the Comparative Media Studies Program/Writing, and Mary Fuller, a professor in the Literature Section and the current chair of the MIT faculty. In his second year, Jaco will work on Cyber/Cypher Rapper, a research project to develop a computational system that participates in responsive and improvisational rap.

    Morgane Konig first joined the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT in December 2021 as a postdoc. Now a member of the 2023–24 MLK Visiting Scholars Program cohort, she will deepen her ties with scholars and research groups working in cosmology, primarily on early-universe inflation and late-universe signatures that could enable the scientific community to learn more about the mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy. Her faculty hosts are David Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics, and Alan Guth, the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics, both from the Department of Physics.

    The former minister of culture for Colombia and a transformational leader dedicated to environmental protection, Angelica Mayolo-Obregon joins MIT from Buenaventura, Colombia. During her time at MIT, she will serve as an advisor and guest speaker, and help MIT facilitate gatherings of environmental leaders committed to addressing climate action and conserving biodiversity across the Americas, with a special emphasis on Afro-descendant communities. Mayolo-Obregon is hosted by John Fernandez, a professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, and by J. Phillip Thompson, an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (and a former MLK Scholar).

    Jean-Luc Pierite is a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana and the president of the board of directors of North American Indian Center of Boston. While at MIT, Pierite will build connections between MIT and the local Indigenous communities. His research focuses on enhancing climate resilience planning by infusing Indigenous knowledge and ecological practices into scientific and other disciplines. His faculty host is Janelle Knox-Hayes, the Lister Brothers Professor of Economic Geography and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

    Christine Taylor-Butler ’81 is a children’s book author who has written over 90 books; she is hosted by Graham Jones, an associate professor of anthropology. An advocate for literacy and STEAM education in underserved urban and rural schools, Taylor-Butler will partner with community organizations in the Boston area. She is also completing the fourth installment of her middle-grade series, “The Lost Tribe.” These books follow a team of five kids as they use science and technology to crack codes and solve mysteries.

    Angelino Viceisza, a professor of economics at Spelman College, joins MIT Sloan as an MLK Visiting Professor and the Phyllis Wallace Visiting Professor; he is hosted by Robert Gibbons, Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management, and Ray Reagans, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Management, professor of organization studies, and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at MIT Sloan. Viceisza has strong, ongoing connections with MIT. His research focuses on remittances, retirement, and household finance in low-income countries and is relevant to public finance and financial economics, as well as the development and organizational economics communities at MIT. 

    Javit Drake, Moriba Jah, and Louis Massiah, members of last year’s cohort of MLK Scholars, will remain at MIT through the end of 2023.

    There are multiple opportunities throughout the year to meet our MLK Visiting Scholars and learn more about their research projects and their social impact. 

    For more information about the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program and upcoming events, visit the website. More