In nanotube science, is boron nitride the new carbon?

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Engineers at MIT and the University of Tokyo have produced centimeter-scale structures, large enough for the eye to see, that are packed with hundreds of billions of hollow aligned fibers, or nanotubes, made from hexagonal boron nitride.

Hexagonal boron nitride, or hBN, is a single-atom-thin material that has been coined “white graphene” for its transparent appearance and its similarity to carbon-based graphene in molecular structure and strength. It can also withstand higher temperatures than graphene, and is electrically insulating, rather than conductive. When hBN is rolled into nanometer-scale tubes, or nanotubes, its exceptional properties are significantly enhanced.

The team’s results, published today in the journal ACS Nano, provide a route toward fabricating aligned boron nitride nanotubes (A-BNNTs) in bulk. The researchers plan to harness the technique to fabricate bulk-scale arrays of these nanotubes, which can then be combined with other materials to make stronger, more heat-resistant composites, for instance to shield space structures and hypersonic aircraft.

As hBN is transparent and electrically insulating, the team also envisions incorporating the BNNTs into transparent windows and using them to electrically insulate sensors within electronic devices. The team is also investigating ways to weave the nanofibers into membranes for water filtration and for “blue energy” — a concept for renewable energy in which electricity is produced from the ionic filtering of salt water into fresh water.

Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, likens the team’s results to scientists’ decades-long, ongoing pursuit of manufacturing bulk-scale carbon nanotubes.

“In 1991, a single carbon nanotube was identified as an interesting thing, but it’s been 30 years getting to bulk aligned carbon nanotubes, and the world’s not even fully there yet,” Wardle says. “With the work we’re doing, we’ve just short-circuited about 20 years in getting to bulk-scale versions of aligned boron nitride nanotubes.”

Wardle is the senior author of the new study, which includes lead author and MIT research scientist Luiz Acauan, former MIT postdoc Haozhe Wang, and collaborators at the University of Tokyo.

A vision, aligned

Like graphene, hexagonal boron nitride has a molecular structure resembling chicken wire. In graphene, this chicken wire configuration is made entirely of carbon atoms, arranged in a repeating pattern of hexagons. For hBN, the hexagons are composed of alternating atoms of boron and nitrogen. In recent years, researchers have found that two-dimensional sheets of hBN exhibit exceptional properties of strength, stiffness, and resilience at high temperatures. When sheets of hBN are rolled into nanotube form, these properties are further enhanced, particularly when the nanotubes are aligned, like tiny trees in a densely packed forest.

But finding ways to synthesize stable, high quality BNNTs has proven challenging. A handful of efforts to do so have produced low-quality, nonaligned fibers.

“If you can align them, you have much better chance of harnessing BNNTs properties at the bulk scale to make actual physical devices, composites, and membranes,” Wardle says.

In 2020, Rong Xiang and colleagues at the University of Tokyo found they could produce high-quality boron nitride nanotubes by first using a conventional approach of chemical vapor deposition to grow a forest of short, few micron-long carbon nanotubes. They then coated the carbon-based forest with “precursors” of boron and nitrogen gas, which when baked in an oven at high temperatures crystallized onto the carbon nanotubes to form high-quality nanotubes of hexagonal boron nitride with carbon nanotubes inside.

Burning scaffolds

In the new study, Wardle and Acauan have extend and scale Xiang’s approach, essentially removing the underlying carbon nanotubes and leaving the long boron nitride nanotubes to stand on their own. The team drew on the expertise of Wardle’s group, which has focused for years on fabricating high-quality aligned arrays of carbon nanotubes. With their current work, the researchers looked for ways to tweak the temperatures and pressures of the chemical vapor deposition process in order to remove the carbon nanotubes while leaving the boron nitride nanotubes intact.

“The first few times we did it, it was completely ugly garbage,” Wardle recalls. “The tubes curled up into a ball, and they didn’t work.”

Eventually, the team hit on a combination of temperatures, pressures, and precursors that did the trick. With this combination of processes, the researchers first reproduced the steps that Xiang took to synthesize the boron-nitride-coated carbon nanotubes. As hBN is resistant to higher temperatures than graphene, the team then cranked up the heat to burn away the underlying black carbon nanotube scaffold, while leaving the transparent, freestanding boron nitride nanotubes intact.

MIT engineers fabricate a forest of “white graphene” nanotubes (shown here patterned as MIT) by burning away a scaffold of black carbon.

In microscopic images, the team observed clear crystalline structures — evidence that the boron nitride nanotubes have a high quality. The structures were also dense: Within a square centimeter, the researchers were able to synthesize a forest of more than 100 billion aligned boron nitride nanotubes, that measured about a millimeter in height — large enough to be visible by eye. By nanotube engineering standards, these dimensions are considered to be “bulk” in scale.

“We are now able to make these nanoscale fibers at bulk scale, which has never been shown before,” Acauan says.

To demonstrate the flexibility of their technique, the team synthesized larger carbon-based structures, including a weave of carbon fibers, a mat of “fuzzy” carbon nanotubes, and sheets of randomly oriented carbon nanotubes known as “buckypaper.” They coated each carbon-based sample with boron and nitrogen precursors, then went through their process to burn away the underlying carbon. In each demonstration, they were left with a boron-nitride replica of the original black carbon scaffold.

They also were able to “knock down” the forests of BNNTs, producing horizontally aligned fiber films that are a preferred configuration for incorporating into composite materials.

“We are now working toward fibers to reinforce ceramic matrix composites, for hypersonic and space applications where there are very high temperatures, and for windows for devices that need to be optically transparent,” Wardle says. “You could make transparent materials that are reinforced with these very strong nanotubes.”

This research was supported, in part, by Airbus, ANSYS, Boeing, Embraer, Lockheed Martin, Saab AB, and Teijin Carbon America through MIT’s Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace STructures (NECST) Consortium.

Source: In nanotube science, is boron nitride the new carbon?

Angela Koehler takes on the most challenging drug targets

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Analyzing the genetic mutations linked with diseases such as cancer has yielded many potential drug targets. However, a significant number of these proteins are considered “undruggable,” mainly because their structure is too floppy for any kind of small-molecule drug to bind to it.

Angela Koehler, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, has made it her mission to find ways to drug these targets. By taking aim at proteins that interact with the undruggable proteins, she can indirectly disable them or reduce their impact. This approach has already yielded one potential cancer drug that is in early-stage clinical trials, with others in the pipeline.

“In our lab, we think about multiple molecular strategies to perturb the function of the transcriptional regulatory network that a target resides in. Sometimes that’s directly going after the target, and sometimes that’s leveraging partner proteins,” says Koehler, who is also a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Koehler, who trained as a chemical biologist, wears many different hats as the leader of her research group. On any given day, she may focus her attention on studying the biology of protein interactions, engineering new tools to analyze these interactions, developing chemical approaches to designing new drugs, or spinning out startups and working with pharmaceutical companies on potential drug compounds.

“The measure of success of MIT is the impact that you make, whether that’s writing papers or translating your work to the wider world,” she says. “Increasingly we are either spinning assets out of our lab into biotech companies or partnering with pharmaceutical companies. We’re trying to lower the barrier for our colleagues in industry to think about some of these more challenging targets.”

“Biologically interesting problems”

Koehler, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, was 4 years old when nearby Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, an event that both terrified her and spurred her interest in science.

“Every year, to help get me over the trauma of living next to a volcano, my parents would take us up to the mountain,” Koehler recalls. “Each year, you could go a little further, but at first it was just blanket devastation. Later, you could see fields that were growing with flowers, and the life starting to come back.”

Seeing that devastation and recovery up close inspired an interest in geology and later other areas of science, especially biology. At Reed College, she started out pre-med but soon realized she was more interested in the molecular aspects of biology than in becoming a doctor.

During her junior year at Reed, Barbara Imperiali, then a professor of chemistry at Caltech (and now an MIT faculty member), came to give a lecture that Koehler remembers as the event that inspired her to go to graduate school and pursue a career in academia.

“She came to Reed and gave this amazing lecture in an area called bioorganic chemistry. She was applying her skills as a chemist toward biologically interesting problems, and then engineering new types of molecules and tools. And I thought, I want to be just like her when I grow up,” Koehler says. “That lecture was one of the solidifying moments for me to realize, oh, I want to go do a PhD.”

After spending her first year of graduate school at Caltech, Koehler moved to Harvard University to finish her PhD, working with Stuart Schreiber, a professor of chemistry. There, she started developing technology that her MIT lab uses now, which consists of microarrays of small molecules that can be screened for activity against target proteins.

Around the time that she finished her PhD, Schreiber, MIT Professor Eric Lander, and others were making plans for a research institute that would build on the initial mapping of the human genome. The logical next step was to try to determine the functions and properties of the many newly discovered genes that appeared in the genomic map. Koehler’s work developing technology to analyze the properties of proteins seemed like a good fit, so in 2003, she joined the newly founded Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

At the Broad, she set up a high-throughput screening center that has yielded insight into the role of proteins linked to specific diseases, and helped to identify drugs that can target them. In 2013, she decided she was ready to switch to a tenure-track position and began applying for faculty jobs, including one in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering. Her research also drew interest from the Koch Institute leadership, and she ended up being hired as an assistant professor in biological engineering, with her lab at the Koch Institute.

Tackling difficult targets

Although she didn’t formally study engineering, Koehler’s training as a chemical biologist closely parallels the field that at MIT is called biological engineering, she says.

“A chemical biologist uses chemical tools and methods to study biological systems and modulate biological systems, and also makes things, just like biological engineers make things,” she says. “Biological engineering was by far the best fit for me given that chemical biologists often like to think quantitatively.”

In her lab at MIT, which is populated by chemists, biologists, engineers, and computer scientists, Koehler focuses on finding ways to drug certain undruggable targets. Much of her work centers on a protein called Myc, which is overexpressed in about 70 percent of cancers. Myc is a transcription factor, meaning that it controls the expression of many other genes. Overexpression of Myc leads to uncontrolled cell growth and proliferation.

Like other molecules considered undruggable, Myc is very floppy, like a strand of spaghetti. Without a distinct structure, it is very difficult to find small molecules that will bind to and inhibit it. Instead, Koehler has focused on targeting other proteins that have crucial partnerships with Myc.

So far, her work has generated potential drug candidates that target a protein called Max, which is a necessary partner for Myc, and another that targets a molecule called CDK9, which regulates Myc’s activity. The latter compound is now in early-stage clinical trials run by Kronos Bio, a company co-founded by Koehler.

“Going after Myc’s neighbor proteins has turned out to be a more tractable strategy,” Koehler says. “We’re now applying what we’ve learned to not only other transcription factors, but other undruggable targets like RNA-binding proteins or cytokines, which are undruggable for different reasons.”

Spinning her research out into companies that could use it to develop potential therapeutics is a key goal of Koehler’s lab. She also co-teaches a course in the science and business of biotechnology, which focuses on developing ways to bring technologies developed in academia into wider use.

“When I was a graduate student at Harvard, I never thought that I would care about that translational piece, but that’s part of the lifeblood of the MIT community,” Koehler says. “If your technology or your idea has legs, we spend a lot of time here in the MIT community thinking about how to deploy that technology. That’s another reason why I feel kinship with engineers, even though I don’t have a formal degree in engineering. Engineers are very focused on trying to make sure that their idea or invention is well-poised to be deployed to the wider world and to make an impact.”

Source: Angela Koehler takes on the most challenging drug targets

Frank Sidney Jones, professor emeritus of urban affairs, dies at 93

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Frank Sidney Jones, professor emeritus in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), passed away on Aug. 28 at the age of 93.

In 1971, Jones was named Ford Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, becoming the first African American to be tenured at MIT. He also taught courses in civil engineering.

From his appointment in 1968 to his retirement in 1992, he focused on issues of race, poverty, and inequality, using his position to advocate for the expanded presence of people of color at the Institute. 

“Professor Jones epitomized so much of what we aspire to here in DUSP in our ongoing efforts in support of an antiracist transformation and the mobilization of our research, teaching, internal culture, and external partnerships toward excellence, justice, and diversity,” says Chris Zegras, professor of mobility and urban planning and DUSP department head. “While the world has lost a pioneer, his legacy lives on in our department, as well as across and beyond the Institute.”

Jones was the youngest son of David Dallas and Susie Williams Jones, the president and first lady of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. After spending his early years in Greensboro, he moved to Boston and graduated from Phillips Andover Academy before attending Harvard College. At Harvard he was proud to be named the first African American manager of the Harvard football team in 1949. 

After completing his graduate studies at Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1957, Jones pursued an industry career and served as assistant dean at HBS. He joined MIT as executive director of the Urban Systems Laboratory in 1968.

“Frank Jones was a wonderful colleague,” says professor emeritus and former MIT chancellor Phillip Clay PhD ’75. “He joined the DUSP faculty in the early 1970s, when I was a doctoral student. He was a source of encouragement in my early career. Frank challenged orthodoxy in both the literature and practice of urban planning. He promoted justice and inclusion as core values. He actively engaged students.”

“Frank, together with Ken Manning, was among the first academics to understand the larger meaning of the HIV/AIDS crisis, teaching several courses and seminars to help students draw the meaning of the social impact of the public health crisis. Frank was a major player in the community. He was one of the organizers of The Partnership, an effort to attract Black professionals to the Boston area and provide a networking and professional development platform. The impact of his efforts changed MIT and many other Boston metro-area institutions and corporations.”

Jones was the founding director of the Project on Technology, Race, and Poverty and served on a committee to help select a leader for the newly formed Office of Minority Education (OME), designed to advance the recruitment and education of students of color.

Today, OME facilitates professional development and the building of personal and professional networks, and supports academic excellence for students who are underrepresented, including African American, Native American, and Latinx students across the Institute.

In 1989, Jones was instrumental in creating the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professors and Scholars Program, which continues to bring distinguished visitors to share their wisdom with the MIT community.

“Continuously, forcefully, and successfully, Frank leveled the playing field for African American scholars, reducing the systemic racism and offering paths for scholarship by African Americans at MIT,” says Wesley Harris, the Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Frank’s sage counsel remains.”

In addition to his work at MIT, Jones served on the governing boards of educational and community-focused organizations including: Mount Holyoke College, Phillips Academy, Charles Stark Draper Labs, Greater Roxbury Community Development Corporation, The Center for Creative Leadership, and The Partnership, Inc.

Jones is survived by his two sons, Christopher and David; daughters-in-law Angela Cook-Jones and Sarah Niemczycki; five grandchildren; and eight nieces and nephews.

“Professor Frank Jones cared deeply about excellence and equity and was a fierce advocate for his students. He inspired me, and frankly all his students, to always remember to help those most in need as we aimed to be our best,” says Karen Fulbright-Anderson MCP ’79, PhD ’85.

Fulbright-Anderson spearheaded the creation of the Frank S. Jones Student Activities Fund to honor Jones’s legacy of advocacy and compassionate action by supporting students as they work to help others and address some of society's most pressing issues.

Donations honoring Jones's memory may be made to either the fund or Bennett College. A memorial service is planned for Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. in the MIT Chapel.

Source: Frank Sidney Jones, professor emeritus of urban affairs, dies at 93

Two first-year students named Rise Global Winners for 2022

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In 2019, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, launched a $1 billion philanthropic commitment to identify global talent. Part of that effort is the Rise initiative, which selects 100 young scholars, ages 15-17, from around the world who show unusual promise and a drive to serve others. This year’s cohort of 100 Rise Global Winners includes two MIT first-year students, Jacqueline Prawira and Safiya Sankari.

Rise intentionally targets younger-aged students and focuses on identifying what the program terms “hidden brilliance” in any form, anywhere in the world, whether it be in a high school or a refugee camp. Another defining aspect of the program is that Rise winners receive sustained support — not just in secondary school, but throughout their lives.

“We believe that the answers to the world’s toughest problems lie in the imagination of the world's brightest minds. Rise is an integral part of our mission to create the best, largest, and most enduring pipeline of exceptional talent globally and match it to opportunities to serve others for life,” says Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, which manages Rise along with the Rhodes Trust.

The Rise program creates this enduring pipeline by providing a lifetime of benefits, including funding, programming, and mentoring opportunities. These resources can be tailored to each person as they evolve throughout their career. In addition to a four-year college scholarship, winners receive mentoring and career services; networking opportunities with other Rise recipients and partner organizations; technical equipment such as laptops or tablets; courses on topics like leadership and human-centered design; and opportunities to apply for graduate scholarships and for funding throughout their careers to support their innovative ideas, such as grants or seed money to start a social enterprise.

Prawira and Sankari’s winning service projects focus on global sustainability and global medical access, respectively. Prawira invented a way to use upcycled fish-scale waste to absorb heavy metals in wastewater. She first started experimenting with fish-scale waste in middle school to try to find a bio-based alternative to plastic. More recently, she discovered that the calcium salts and collagen in fish scales can absorb up to 82 percent of heavy metals from water, and 91 percent if an electric current is passed through the water. Her work has global implications for treating contaminated water at wastewater plants and in developing countries.

Prawira published her research in 2021 and has won awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several other organizations. She’s planning to major in Course 3 (materials science and engineering), perhaps with an environmentally related minor. “I believe that sustainability and solving environmental problems requires a multifaced approach,” she says. “Creating greener materials for use in our daily lives will have a major impact in solving current environmental issues.”

For Sankari’s service project, she developed an algorithm to analyze data from electronic nano-sensor devices, or e-noses, which can detect certain diseases from a patient’s breath. The devices are calibrated to detect volatile organic compound biosignatures that are indicative of diseases like diabetes and cancer. “E-nose disease detection is much faster and cheaper than traditional methods of diagnosis, making medical care more accessible to many,” she explains. The Python-based algorithm she created can translate raw data from e-noses into a result that the user can read.

Sankari is a lifetime member of the American Junior Academy of Science and has been a finalist in several prestigious science competitions. She is considering a major in Course 6-7 (computer science and molecular biology) at MIT and hopes to continue to explore the intersection between nanotechnology and medicine.

While the 2022 Rise recipients share a desire to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems, their ideas and interests, as reflected by their service projects, are broad, innovative, and diverse. A winner from Belarus used bioinformatics to predict the molecular effect of a potential Alzheimer’s drug. A Romanian student created a magazine that aims to promote acceptance of transgender bodies. A Vietnamese teen created a prototype of a toothbrush that uses a nano chip to detect cancerous cells in saliva. And a recipient from the United States designed modular, tiny homes for the unhoused that are affordable and sustainable, as an alternative to homeless shelters.

This year’s winners were selected from over 13,000 applicants from 47 countries, from Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso to Lebanon and Paraguay. The selection process includes group interviews, peer and expert review of each applicant’s service project, and formal talent assessments.

Source: Two first-year students named Rise Global Winners for 2022

A “door” into the mitochondrial membrane

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Mitochondria — the organelles responsible for energy production in human cells — were once free-living organisms that found their way into early eukaryotic cells over a billion years ago. Since then, they have merged seamlessly with their hosts in a classic example of symbiotic evolution, and now rely on many proteins made in their host cell’s nucleus to function properly.

Proteins on the outer membrane of mitochondria are especially important; they allow the mitochondria to communicate with the rest of the cell, and play a role in immune functions and a type of programmed cell death called apoptosis. Over the course of evolution, cells evolved a specific mechanism by which to insert these proteins — which are made in the cell’s cytoplasm — into the mitochondrial membrane. But what that mechanism was, and what cellular players were involved, has long been a mystery. 

A new paper from the labs of MIT Professor Jonathan Weissman and Caltech Professor Rebecca Voorhees provides a solution to that mystery. The work, published Oct. 21 in the journal Science, reveals that a protein called mitochondrial carrier homolog 2, or MTCH2 for short, which has been linked to many cellular processes and even diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, is responsible for acting as a “door” for a variety of proteins to access the mitochondrial membrane. 

“Until now, no one knew what MTCH2 was really doing — they just knew that when you lose it, all these different things happen to the cell,” says Weissman, who is also member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “It was sort of a mystery why this one protein affects so many different processes. This study gives a molecular basis for understanding why MTCH2 was implicated in Alzheimer's and lipid biosynthesis and mitochondrial fission and fusion: because it was responsible for inserting all these different types of proteins in the membrane.”

“The collaboration between our labs was essential in understanding the biochemistry of this interaction, and has led to a really exciting new understanding of a fundamental question in cell biology,” Voorhees says. 

The search for a door 

In order to find out how proteins from the cytoplasm — specifically a class called tail-anchored proteins — were being inserted into the outer membranes of mitochondria, Weismann Lab postdoc and first author of the study Alina Guna, alongside Voorhees Lab graduate student Taylor Stevens and postdoc Alison Inglis, decided to use a technique called used the CRISPR interference (or CRISPRi) screening approach, which was invented by Weissman and collaborators.

“The CRISPR screen let us systematically get rid of every gene, and then look and see what happened [to one specific tail-anchored protein],” says Guna. “We found one gene, MTCH2, where when we got rid of it there was a huge decrease in how much of our protein got to the mitochondrial membrane. So we thought, maybe this is the doorway to get in.”

To confirm that MTCH2 was acting as a doorway into the mitochondrial membrane, the researchers performed additional experiments to observe what happened when MTCH2 was not present in the cell. They found that MTCH2 was both necessary and sufficient to allow tail-anchored membrane proteins to move from the cytoplasm into the mitochondrial membrane. 

MTCH2’s ability to shuttle proteins from the cytoplasm into the mitochondrial membrane is likely due to its specialized shape. The researchers ran the protein’s sequence through Alpha Fold, an artificial intelligence system that predicts a protein’s structure through its amino acid sequence, which revealed that it is a hydrophobic protein — perfect for inserting into the oily membrane — but with a single hydrophilic groove where other proteins could enter.

“It's basically like a funnel,” Guna says. “Proteins come from the cytosol, they slip into that hydrophilic groove and then move from the protein into the membrane.”

To confirm that this groove was important in the protein’s function, Guna and her colleagues designed another experiment. “We wanted to play around with the structure to see if we could change its behavior, and we were able to do that,” Guna says. “We went in and made a single point mutation, and that point mutation was enough to really change how the protein behaved and how it interacted with substrates. And then we went on and found mutations that made it less active and mutations that made it super active.”

The new study has applications beyond answering a fundamental question of mitochondria research. “There's a whole lot of things that come out of this,” Guna says. 

For one thing, MTCH2 inserts proteins key to a type of programmed cell death called apoptosis, which researchers could potentially harness for cancer treatments. “We can make leukemia cells more sensitive to a cancer treatment by giving them a mutation that changes the activity of MTCH2,” Guna says. “The mutation makes MTCH2 act more ‘greedy’ and insert more things into the membrane, and some of those things that have inserts are like pro-apoptotic factors, so then those cells are more likely to die, which is fantastic in the context of a cancer treatment.”

The work also raises questions about how MTCH2 developed its function over time. MTCH2 evolved from a family of proteins called the solute carriers, which shuttle a variety of substances across cellular membranes. “We're really interested in this evolution question of, how do you evolve a new function from an old, ubiquitous class of proteins?” Weissman says.

And researchers still have much to learn about how mitochondria interact with the rest of the cell, including how they react to stress and changes within the cell, and how proteins find their way to mitochondria in the first place. “I think that [this paper] is just the first step,” Weissman says. “This only applies to one class of membrane proteins — and it doesn't tell you all of the steps that happen after the proteins are made in the cytoplasm. For example, how are they ferried to mitochondria? So stay tuned — I think we'll be learning that we now have a very nice system for opening up this fundamental piece of cell biology.”

Source: A “door” into the mitochondrial membrane

Designing the cities of tomorrow

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Reflecting on the mission and approach of SENSEable City Lab at MIT and his role as its director, Carlo Ratti quotes the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, who said, “The engineer, and more generally the designer, is concerned with how things ought to be — how they ought to be in order to attain goals, and to function.” Simon was a political scientist and economist, but his groundbreaking research on decision-making within organizations was informed by disparate disciplines including computer science and cognitive science.  

Ratti, too, recognizes that, given the scope of his work, relying on the methodologies of a single field would be limiting. Our urban spaces are multifaceted constructions, a complex web of evolving systems, and collaboration between disciplines is essential to make sense of them. “The city is a universe,” says Ratti, a professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “It can be viewed through the lens of economics or sociology or architecture and design. But a lab focused on cities truly requires an omni-disciplinary approach.”  

Which is why SENSEable City Lab fills its ranks with researchers with diverse specialties. It thrives, in no small part, due to collaborative effort, uniting urban planners and designers with engineers and physicists, systems mathematicians with economists and sociologists. Together they find a common language to engage with each other, industry partners, metropolitan governments, individual citizens, and disadvantaged communities to shape the future. 

In 2011, for example, the sharing economy was in full bloom, but offerings like Uber pool (UberXshare), Lyftline (Lyft Shared), and Ola did not yet exist. Nobody had quantified the viability of shared trips for passengers heading in the same direction until Ratti and SENSEable City introduced a novel concept they called “shareability networks” via the HubCab Project. Among other things, this led to the first collaboration between the Institute and Uber. Analyzing the movements of all 13,500 medallion taxis in New York City, they assembled a dataset containing the GPS coordinates of the pickup and drop-off points and corresponding times of over 170 million taxi trips. Subsequently, this dataset helped them develop a new tool that allowed for efficient modeling and optimization of trip-sharing opportunities. Their analysis showed that taxi sharing could reduce the number of trips taken by 40 percent, thereby reducing congestion, energy consumption, and pollution.

More recently, on the social sustainability front, Ratti and his lab put big data to work on a project they call Proximate. To understand connectivity and how remote work affects innovation, they analyzed the email exchange network at MIT before and after the Institute-wide lockdown due to Covid-19. The endeavor draws on the work of sociologist and Stanford University professor Mark Granovetter, who is perhaps best known for his theory that “weak ties” — looser relationships outside of our core network of friends, family, and colleagues — are crucial bridges between social groups that encourage societal diversity, innovation, and creativity. Ratti’s examination of communications among 2,834 MIT faculty and postdocs showed a clear disintegration of “weak ties” when interactions became purely digital in nature. In other words, digital networks, for all their benefits, cannot replace in-person interactions — not if we hope to continue innovating. “The physical space accommodates and encourages the unexpected, the serendipitous, in a manner that doesn't happen, or hasn’t happened yet, in a virtual setting,” Ratti explains. 

And, in an effort to expand the impact of his lab at MIT, Ratti has established a series of satellite labs around the globe. The SENSEable Amsterdam Lab (SAL) is involved in an ongoing collaboration with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions to help the Dutch capital become carbon neutral by 2050. The first SAL project is a multifunctional autonomous mobility solution befitting a city with more than 60 miles of canals. The Roboat platform has the power to transform urban waterways: it can be used to transport people, deliver goods, or for services like waste collection. It could even be used to create on-demand infrastructure, such as a floating bridge or a concert stage. 

Meanwhile, in Sweden, through a partnership with KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Ratti and his colleagues are leveraging big data to examine integration and segregation in Stockholm. Their findings: these days people tend to self-segregate by socioeconomic strata whether moving through the city or connecting online, creating what Ratti calls “liminal ghettos.” “These are not the ghettos of the past, but they are insidious, invisible fault lines,” he explains. “Once we understand those fault lines, we can take actions to bridge them so that cities fulfill their primordial function, ensuring that together we are more than each of us individually.” 

To effectively run a lab focused on cities requires stepping out of the lab and physically inhabiting urban spaces, says Ratti. But he’s also looking beyond earthbound innovations. In a truly cross-disciplinary effort that demonstrates diversity of thought and creativity, he has begun exploring the feasibility of fabricating and deploying a raft of silicon bubbles roughly the size of Brazil into outer space. The goal: reverse global warming by deflecting solar radiation before it hits our planet. The Space Bubbles project is intended as an emergency intervention should current efforts to reduce emissions fail. Joining him is a team of experts from MIT including Charles Primmerman (MIT Lincoln Laboratory), Professor Daniela Rus (MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), Professor Gareth McKinley (MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering), and Professor Markus Buehler (MIT departments of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering). 

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, combined with the rise of big data, have transformed nearly every aspect of our daily lives and how we interact with each other and our built environment; consider the maturation of the internet of things and its profound effect on urban spaces. In the hands of Carlo Ratti and his SENSEable City Lab at MIT, technological advancements become tools to understand our cities and ourselves, gain new insights, and explore opportunities to redesign the future. “The convergence between the digital and physical world is radically changing the way we can understand and design cities, and ultimately how we can live in urban spaces in a different, better way,” says Ratti.

Source: Designing the cities of tomorrow

“Drawing Together” is awarded Norman B. Leventhal City Prize

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“Drawing Together,” a social and ecological resilience project in New York City, has been awarded the 2022 Norman B. Leventhal City Prize. 

The project is a collaboration between MIT faculty, researchers, and students, and Green City Force (GCF), a nonprofit organization in New York City that trains young people for careers with a sustainability focus while they serve local public housing communities.

The winning proposal was submitted by a team led by MIT’s Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor and director of the Urban Risk Lab; Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and head of the Department of Architecture; Carlos Sandoval Olascoaga PhD ’21, a postdoc in the Department of Architecture and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing; and Tonya Gayle, executive director of Green City Force.

Through their Service Corps (affiliated with the national AmeriCorps service and training program), GCF trains young residents of New York City Housing Authority public housing to participate in large-scale environmental and health initiatives in public housing and other local communities.

The Drawing Together team will collaborate with GCF on its “Eco-Hubs,” an urban farms initiative. In a co-design effort, Drawing Together will create a new digital platform to support community-led planning and design processes for the siting, design, and operation of these spaces. This platform will also facilitate the scaling-up of community engagement with Eco-Hubs.

The $100,000 triennial prize was established in 2019 by MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) to catalyze innovative interdisciplinary urban design and planning approaches worldwide to improve the environment as well as the quality of life for residents. The first awardee was “Malden River Works for Waterfront Equity and Resilience,” a project for a civic waterfront space in Malden, Massachusetts.

The 2022 Leventhal City Prize call for submissions sought proposals that focused on digital urbanism — investigating how life in cities can be improved using digital tools that are equitable and responsive to social and environmental conditions. The jury reviewed proposals for projects that offered new urban design and planning solutions using evolving data sources and computational techniques that transform the quality of life in metropolitan environments.

“Digital urbanism is the intersection between cities, design, and technology and how we can identify new ways to include technology and design in our cities,” says LCAU Director Sarah Williams. “Drawing Together perfectly exemplifies how digital urbanism can assist in the co-development of design solution and improve the quality of life for the public.”

The team will expand the workforce training currently offered by GCF to incorporate digital skills, with the goal of developing and integrating a sustainability-focused data science curriculum that supports sustainable urban farming within the Eco-Hubs.

“What is most inspiring about this project is that young people are the writers, rather than passive subjects of urban transformation,” says juror Garrett Dash Nelson, president and head curator of the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library. “By taking the information and design architectures and making them central to youth-driven decisions about environmental planning, this project has the potential to activate a new participatory paradigm that will resonate far beyond New York City.”

“In addition to community-based digital methods for urban environmental design, this project has the potential to strengthen computational skills in green job opportunities for youth that the Green City Force Eco-Hubs serve,” says juror James Wescoat, MIT Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Geography. 

In addition to Nelson and Wescoat, the jury for this year’s competition included Lilian Coral, director of National Strategy and Technology Innovation at the Knight Foundation; Jose Castillo, principal at a|911 and professor of urbanism at CENTRO University; and Nigel Jacob, senior fellow at the Burnes Center for Global Impact at Northeastern University.

The prize jury identified two finalists. Co-HATY Accelerator Team is a multidisciplinary project that helps provide housing and social support to Ukraine’s displaced residents. The team of urban planners, information technologists, architects, and sociologists are using digital technology to better connect residents across the country with housing opportunities. Team members include Brent D. Ryan, associate professor of urban design and public policy at MIT, and Anastasiya Ponomaryova, urban designer and co-founder of co-HATY.

“The Ukraine’s team proposal makes a point of the relevance of architecture and planning in the context of humanitarian crises,” says Castillo. “It forces us to deploy techniques, methods, and knowledge to resolve issues ‘on demand.’ Different from a view of architecture and planning as ’slow practices,’ where design processes, research, pedagogies, and buildings take a long time to be deployed and finalized, this research shows an agile but thorough approach to the immediate and the contingent.”

The second finalist is “Ozymandias: Using Artificial Intelligence to Map Urban Power Structures and Produce Fairer Results for All,” a project led by the Portland, Maine, Society for Architecture. The team behind this project seeks to encourage broader civic participation and positive change in municipal governments. By using emerging AI computation tools to illuminate patterns in power structures and decision-making, the team hopes to highlight correctable yet previously unrecognizable inequities. Principal investigator for the project is Jeff Levine, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and a past director of planning and urban development for Portland.

“The Ozymandias project recognizes an important truth about urban decision-making — that it is neither a bottom-up nor a top-down structure, but a tangled and often obscure network of formal and informal power systems,” says Nelson. “By bringing analytical methods to bear on a perennial question for civic action — who really governs in a democratic system? — the project offers a provocative methodology for examining why nominally participatory urban processes so often fail at producing inclusive and equitable outcomes.”

Source: “Drawing Together” is awarded Norman B. Leventhal City Prize

Developing community around design

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When the creation of the MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MAD) — a major interdisciplinary center housed in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) — was announced last spring, it promised to build on the Institute’s legendary leadership in design-focused education and provide a hub for cross-disciplinary design work across MIT. The 14 graduate students enrolled as MAD’s inaugural cohort of design fellows are making good on that promise with research projects supporting a range of efforts, with many demonstrating a strong interest in working at the interface of design and sustainability.

The fellows are currently enrolled in masters or doctoral programs across MIT. Engineers, business students, architects, city planners, policy developers — they all wanted to participate in the academy to expand their understanding of design and enrich their ongoing projects or theses.

“While design is viewed in many ways across the MIT community, these fellowships prioritize students whose education and research emphasize design with a focus on users who will benefit from or interface with their work,” says John Ochsendorf, MAD’s founding director and the Class of 1942 Professor and a professor of architecture and of civil and environmental engineering.

The 2022 Design Fellows are: Surbhi Agrawal, Jonathan Bessette, Justin Brazier, Alexander Crease, Ganit Goldstein, Kyle Gordon, Elijah Martin, Mariama N’Diaye, AJ Perez, Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, Francesca Riccio-Ackerman, Jana Saadi, Natha (Bam) Singhasaneh, and Jonathan Zong. Additional biographical information for the fellows is available on the Morningside Academy for Design website.

Some of the research projects the fellows are pursuing include designing deployable desalination and water treatment systems for humanitarian crises; investigating the agency and impact of design on cultural identity, agriculture, and environmental education; examining how computational design workflow can be used to generate sustainable customized garments; and using recycled consumer plastics to 3D print low-cost housing.

Maria Yang, associate dean of the MIT School of Engineering and associate director for MAD, studies “how designers design” to improve design quality. She says design approaches that address the real needs of human users are particularly critical because of their ability to help designers make immediate impact in their work.

“I knew from my own research in human-centered design process that there are many labs and departments across MIT who engage in socially impactful, design-focused research, but it wasn’t until we solicited applications for the fellowships that I realized just how much of the Institute is engaged in design-related research, as well as the depth, quality, and creativity of the work,” says Yang.

Mariama N’Diaye is currently working on a dual masters in city planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and in business administration at MIT Sloan School of Management. A Senegalese American from New York City, N’Diaye had previously been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in which she spent a year conducting ethnographic research in Milan using a “design-thinking lens” to examine how the city’s agencies were working to support its growing non-European Union migrant population. She says she jumped at the chance to apply for a MAD fellowship.

“I’ve been screaming the word ‘design’ for a while,” says N’Diaye. “The worlds of the urban planning space and the MBA space don’t necessarily think about design the same way that I do. For example, when I say ‘design,’ I mean design as a way of process, the way we engage with communities and the users for who we are creating new things, whether it’s a policy, a program, or a place. How do we design those processes to make people who are a part of it be at the center of decision-making?”

N’Diaye’s thesis is focused on governance innovation and cities, and her professional goal is to work on international public sector innovation.

Media arts and sciences PhD candidate Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar SM ’18 was similarly excited to learn about the MAD fellowships last spring, in part because of the prospect of charting a formal education around design at MIT.

“It also felt like a good opportunity to build community at MIT, especially after not being able to connect as much due to the pandemic,” he says.

“In Colombia and other countries, there are different collectives that live outside of mainstream society,” says Reynolds-Cuéllar. “What you find when you enter these places is that technological artifacts are thought out and built differently than the artifacts that surround us in the U.S. daily. Just observing the history of these artifacts, and the way in which people in these places and cultures think of building them, and then comparing it with the way we think and build artifacts, reveals some of the things we could do better.

“Some of the farmers I have encountered are the ultimate designers. The way they think about building things is very different than the way I’ve seen people think about building things at MIT. Everything these farmers design has to return to nature, one way or another, and usually these creations have tight connections to their culture. When I look at the way some things are built at MIT, people are far removed from the places where the raw materials are, so there really is no connection and understanding of the ecological impact of using these materials nor its connection to culture.”

MAD celebrates its launch with a day-long forum — The Power of Design — at the MIT Museum on Oct. 18. Three sessions will illustrate how design impacts the world in which we live. Faculty moderators are Maria Yang; Skylar Tibbits, associate professor in SA+P and director of the Self-Assembly Lab; and Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab.  

The academy was established through a $100 million gift from the Morningside Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the T.H. Chan family. Its founding support includes funding for the fellowships, faculty chairs, opportunities for undergraduate students, and support for classes and curriculum development in design. MAD expects to also offer a variety of public events to the broader MIT community. In addition, the MIT Climate & Sustainability Consortium is proving funding for three fellows as part of the inaugural class. These fellows are working on projects that have a sustainability focus.

The design fellows receive full tuition, health insurance, and a stipend. They are required to participate in a six-unit academic seminar each semester, intended to enrich and expand the work of each fellow, while building community around design across MIT.

Still early in their first semester together, N’Diaye says that discussions among the fellows have been particularly helpful.

“It’s been extremely beneficial to me,” says N’Diaye. “Just being able to connect to each other, learn from each other, to push each other, to hold ourselves accountable to getting our work done, and to be connected to the breadth of diversity of work that we wouldn’t have had the chance to be exposed to has been just great. We use that time as well to help shape the future of design at MIT.”

Source: Developing community around design

Professor Danna Freedman receives 2022 MacArthur Fellowship

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Danna Freedman, the F.G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry at MIT, and Moriba Jah, a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar, have been named recipients of a 2022 MacArthur Fellowship.

Often referred to as “genius grants,” the fellowships come with a five-year, $800,000 prize, which recipients are free to use as they see fit. Freedman, who found out about the award in early September, before it was publicly announced, said she was “completely in shock” after hearing that she had been chosen for the fellowship.

“There are so many parts of being an academic that involve explicitly asking for letters of recommendation, when you know you’re going through a process like tenure, or evaluation for a fellowship. But with this, someone took it upon themselves to recommend me, and other people who I will never know wrote letters for me. It’s so unbelievably kind,” she says.

Freedman, whose research focuses on using inorganic chemistry to create new molecules for quantum information science, joined the MIT faculty in 2021. Before coming to MIT, she was a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University.

“When I was looking at new opportunities at the post-tenure, mid-career stage, I wanted to expand beyond the research that could be done just in my lab, to larger teams. And everyone I talked to at MIT just expanded every idea until it was so full of possibility,” she says. “It’s such an inspirational place.”

At MIT, Freedman designs molecules that can function as quantum units, or qubits. Applications for these kinds of molecules include quantum sensing and communication. Quantum sensors consist of systems in which some particles are in such a delicately balanced state that they are affected by miniscule variations in their environments. This allows them to detect tiny changes in electric and magnetic fields, as well physical properties of nanometer-scale systems.

Quantum sensors can be used to investigate exotic states of matter, or to characterize quantum computers or quantum memory devices.

“Molecules are uniquely suited for a lot of quantum sensing applications and for quantum communication applications,” Freedman says. “You can use a molecule to put atoms exactly where you want them to be and then tune them so you can get a whole array of properties, and that combination is incredibly powerful for applications where specificity is important.”

Freedman uses molecular chemistry to create qubits from the electron spin of paramagnetic coordination complexes — molecules with a metallic central atom surrounded by bonded molecules or ions, known as ligands. She has shown that the quantum properties of such complexes can be controlled using specific ligands and by adjusting the strength of the bonds connecting the ligands to the central metal atom.

In one recent paper, she and others reported that qubits containing a central chromium atom surrounded by four hydrocarbon molecules could be customized to interact with specific targets for quantum sensing and communication.

One direction she hopes to pursue with help from the MacArthur funding is working with scientists from other fields to develop sensors that would be useful in those fields, such as neurobiology or Earth sciences.

“What I’m passionate about moving forward is, if we’re going to push the community on sensing, we need to have a larger buy-in from the end-users of these applications. We need to bring in anyone who could benefit from the quantum advantage of measurement and see what features are essential and what features you can compromise on,” she says.

Freedman has garnered many other honors, including Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers through the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. She also received the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry in 2019 and the Camille-Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2018.

She received her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 2009 and did postdoctoral research at MIT with former professor Daniel Nocera before joining the faculty at Northwestern in 2012.

Moriba Jah is an associate professor in the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department at the University of Texas at Austin whose research interests include space sustainability and space traffic management.

As an MLK Visiting Scholar, he is hosted by Assistant Professor Danielle Wood in Media Arts and Sciences and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Richard Linares in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

At MIT, he is developing and strengthening a joint MIT/UT-Austin research program to increase resources and visibility of space sustainability. Jah is also helping to host the AeroAstro Rising Stars symposium, which highlights graduate students, postdocs, and early-career faculty from backgrounds underrepresented in aerospace engineering.

Other MIT faculty members who have won MacArthur Fellowships in recent years include geologist Taylor Perron (2021); brain and cognitive scientist Joshua Tenenbaum (2019); health care economist Amy Finkelstein and media studies scholar Lisa Parks (2018); computer scientist Regina Barzilay (2017); and economist Heidi Williams (2015).

Source: Professor Danna Freedman receives 2022 MacArthur Fellowship

Where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands

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Editor’s note: Since this event was held on Oct. 7, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has continued to evolve, including airstrikes on Ukrainian cities following an explosion that damaged a key bridge linking Russia to Crimea.

More than seven months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the battlefield map has shown recent progress for Ukrainian forces — and yet, the war remains destructive within the country and perilous for the world, with few signs that a rapid end to the conflict is possible. 

That was the conclusion of an MIT panel of experts on Ukraine and Russia held Friday, based on both Ukraine’s recent military success and a strong sense that Russian President Vladimir Putin is very reluctant to endure a public climbdown from his clear goal of controlling Ukraine.

“Is this war going to end any time soon? I don’t think so,” said Volodymyr Dubovyk, an associate professor of international relations and director of the Center for International Studies at Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University in Ukraine.

He added: “Instead of actually quitting and saying, “Okay, we’re done, we’re quitting, let’s sit down and [find] some kind of a peaceful resolution, he [Putin] is doubling down. That’s the kind of person that he is. He’s made a lot of mistakes, he’s cornered, with no clear exit strategy for him or offramp … yet he is still hoping to be able to turn this around.”

Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, and a fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, warned against complacency among Ukraine’s allies and supporters, now that Ukraine has been able to stand up to Russia in military terms.

“Ukraine has the initiative, and at this stage on the battlefield it also very much has the momentum,” Kofman said. “It’s been able to convert its advantage in manpower and morale, together with Western military substance, into much greater combat power. Ukraine has demonstrated the ability to conduct concurrent offensives on different fronts. … It’s much easier for the Ukrainian military to shift forces within Ukraine from one theater of operations to another, rather than it is for Russia to move units around, back and forth, to try to defend different areas.”

That said, Kofman added, “I also fear that too many people have begun to assume, because Ukraine is winning the war, that the war has already been won.”

Still, with Ukraine heavily dependent on military aid from its allies, Steven Simon, the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS), pointed out that U.S. public sentiment has actually moved in favor of Ukraine support in recent months, as championed by U.S. President Joe Biden.

“Biden has the political wind at his back,” Simon said, noting that one poll last week showed 73 percent of Americans (albeit with a partisan split) agreeing that the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine, a number up since the summer. “From the administration’s perspective, there is a lot to like.”

The event, “An Update on Russia’s War with Ukraine,” was the latest Starr Forum, MIT’s regular event series on foreign policy, international relations, and global affairs, organized by CIS. This event was co-sponsored by CIS, the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP), and the MIT-Eurasia program in the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).

The event’s moderators were Carol Saivetz, a senior advisor in SSP and an expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy; and Elizabeth Wood, a professor of history at MIT, author of the 2016 book “Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine,” and co-director of the MISTI MIT-Eurasia Program.

While the early months of the war saw significant Russian advances in multiple areas of Ukraine, the tide has turned since then. A recent Ukrainian counteroffensive in the country’s north has pushed Russian troops back across the border and has extended to provinces in the Donbas region, the site of much industrial activity. Over the last week, Ukraine has also taken back 150 square miles of land in the Kherson province in the country’s south.

Despite this progress — or perhaps because of it — the prospects for the war dragging on or escalating may have increased. Putin’s decision to mobilize more Russians through a military draft will bring additional personnel to the front, possibly lengthening the conflict.

“General mobilization, the added manpower could, potentially, extend the war,” Kofman said. However, he added, “Mobilization would have been a much more dangerous development in this war had it taken place in April,” when Russia was in a stronger position.

At the same time, a ground campaign going badly for Russia has heightened fears that it could resort to using some of its nuclear weapons in Ukraine. That might be an unlikely scenario in absolute terms, Kofman noted, but continued military losses might continue to raise the possibility.

“The risk of nuclear escalation is very real, [but] it’s not necessarily as high as I think it’s being portrayed publicly,” Kofman said. “It’s also not [necessarily true] that if Russia’s losing, Putin’s going to use nuclear weapons.”

At the same time, Simon noted, it is also unlikely that a coup or attempt at regime change in Russia would be prompted by the war, because of the way Putin has prevented other groups or elites within Russia from amassing capacity to act.

‘This regime is coup-proofed,” said Simon, who served as the National Security Council (NSC) senior director for the Middle East and North Africa during the Obama administration and NSC senior director for counterterrorism during the Clinton administration.

Ukraine is in a better situation than it appeared in the spring, and certainly in the very first days of the invasion, when it looked as if Ukraine’s democratic government led by president Volodymyr Zelensky, might not remain intact. Still, as Dubovyk emphasized, Ukraine very much remains in the throes of war, and needs continued aid in all forms — military and civilian — from allies.

“It is very difficult to deal with the ongoing onslaught,” Dubovyk said.

He added: “One thing that we would really not like to see is for people to lose interest [in] this war, and not to care about it any more, and not to have a sustained interest in helping Ukraine to withstand this pressure and aggression from Russia.”

Source: Where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands

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