Gitanjali Rao honored at White House “Girls Leading Change” celebration

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MIT first-year student Gitanjali Rao was honored at the first Girls Leading Change celebration held at the White House on Oct. 11, which is also the International Day of the Girl Child.

Fifteen young women were selected by the White House Gender Policy Council for their work as leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, authors, climate change activists, and health care advocates. First Lady Jill Biden recognized the group at the celebration and thanked them for their hard work, achievements, and strides toward making positive change in their communities and across the country.

Rao, from Lone Tree, Colorado, was nominated by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for her work promoting science and innovation among youth, locally and globally, and inspiring them with several inventions.

Before the ceremony, honorees had the opportunity to socialize with each other and spent a night bowling in the White House bowling alley. They also toured the White House, and First Lady Biden took them to a flower garden where they picked flowers to make bouquets for the ceremony.

“Dr. Biden was very down-to-earth and very connected to the community. The event was her idea because she wants to see social change happen,” says Rao, adding, “I focus on STEM, and there is an overlap between STEM and climate change, including the contamination of natural resources. Teenage mental health overlaps with gun violence and many other things. We are all interested in the lack of education for women, especially in third-world countries.”

“Right now, I plan to major in biological engineering and minor in entrepreneurship and innovation. MIT was my dream school. In the last few months, I have really grown up living on the campus and in the labs,” says Rao. “My dream is to work on developing solutions to some of the most complex problems in our communities, and possibly someday run a biotech company.”

Rao is no stranger to inventing, conducting research, and undertaking projects to make the world a better place. Among her inventions are “Tethys,” a patented solution that warns of lead levels in drinking water, a service named “Kindly” that uses artificial intelligence and neurolinguistic programming to help stop cyberbullying on social media, and “Epione,” a device for early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction.

She is also the author of two books: “A Young Inventor’s Guide to STEM: 5 Steps to Problem Solving for Students, Educators, and Parents,” which is currently available worldwide in five languages, and “A Young Innovators Guide to Planning For Success,” coming out in June 2024.

Before she applied to MIT, Rao spent time on campus conducting research at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where she worked on a system that would deliver medication to cancerous tumors more quickly. She also did research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

“The Koch and Broad institutes are magical places. I loved working there. There are so many smart, dedicated people with a singular aim to solve some of the biggest problems around us,” says Rao.

Her extraordinary accomplishments landed Rao on the cover of Time as its first “Kid of the Year” in 2020, at the age of 15.

Rao is looking forward to exploring MIT even more. She will soon start an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project in the lab of Professor Manolis Kellis at the Broad Institute. After meeting MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer at a conference in Florida, she is inspired to work at a biotech firm next summer.

“Dr. Langer is one of the nicest people I have met, and his constant encouragement means a lot to me. I hope I get to work on some of the groundbreaking work that organizations like Moderna are doing,” says Rao.

In her free time, Rao enjoys playing the piano, and — after recently getting her pilot’s license — flying gliders. She loves music, is a huge Taylor Swift fan, and hopes to join the fencing team.

Of her White House experience, Rao says, “I met incredible women who want to change the world. Everyone is passionate about what they do. They are people I would like to collaborate with in the future.”

Source: Gitanjali Rao honored at White House “Girls Leading Change” celebration

Ayomikun Ayodeji ’22 named a 2024 Rhodes Scholar

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Ayomikun “Ayo” Ayodeji ’22 from Lagos, Nigeria, has been selected as a Rhodes Scholar for West Africa. He will begin fully funded postgraduate studies at Oxford University in the U.K. next fall.

Ayodeji is passionate about championing reliable energy access across the African landscape and fostering culturally inclusive communities. As a Rhodes Scholar, he will pursue an MSc in energy systems and an MSc in global governance and diplomacy.

He graduated from MIT in 2022 with BS degrees in chemical engineering and management, and is currently an associate at Boston Consulting Group.

“Ayo has worked hard to develop his vision and to express it in ways that will capture the imagination of the broader world. It is a thrill to see him recognized this year as a Rhodes Scholar,” says Professor Nancy Kanwisher, who co-chairs the Presidential Committee on Distinguished Fellowships along with Professor Will Broadhead.

During his time at MIT, Ayodeji’s curiosity for energy innovations was fueled by his research on perovskite solar cells under the MIT Energy Initiative. He then went on to intern at Pioneer Natural Resources where he explored the boundless applications of machine learning tools in completions. At BCG, Ayodeji supports both public and private sector clients on a variety of renewable energy topics including clean energy transition, decarbonization roadmaps, and workforce development.

Ayodeji’s community-oriented mindset led him to team up with a group of friends and partner with the Northeast Children’s Trust (NECT), an organization that helps children affected by the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria. The project, sponsored by Davis Projects for Peace and MIT’s PKG Center, expanded NECT’s programs via an offline, portable classroom server.

Ayodeji served as an undergraduate representative on the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. He was also vice president of the MIT African Students’ Association and a coordinator for the annual MIT International Students Orientation.

He was supported by the Distinguished Fellowships team in Career Advising and Professional Development, and received additional mentorship from the Presidential Committee on Distinguished Fellowships.

Source: Ayomikun Ayodeji ’22 named a 2024 Rhodes Scholar

School of Engineering third quarter 2023 awards

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Faculty and researchers across MIT’s School of Engineering receive many awards in recognition of their scholarship, service, and overall excellence. The School of Engineering periodically recognizes their achievements by highlighting the honors, prizes, and medals won by faculty and research scientists working in our academic departments, labs, and centers.

Source: School of Engineering third quarter 2023 awards

Four from MIT awarded National Medals of Technology, Science

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The White House honored four MIT affiliates today with the nation’s highest awards for scientists and innovators. At a ceremony this afternoon, President Joe Biden announced the recipients of this year’s National Medals of Technology and Innovation and National Medals of Science.

James Fujimoto ’79, SM ’81, PhD ’84, the Elihu Thomson Professor in Electrical Engineering and principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), was a co-recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation along with Eric Swanson SM ’84, a research affiliate at RLE and mentor for the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, and David Huang ’85, SM ’89, PhD ’93, professor of ophthalmology at Oregon Health and Science University.

Subra Suresh ScD ’81, the Vannevar Bush Professor Emeritus and former dean of the MIT School of Engineering, was awarded the National Medal of Science.

“Anything is possible if we put our mind to it, and with you all, you’ve got incredible minds,” President Biden told the honorees. “You’ve saved people’s lives, you’ve changed the way we look at the world, and you made it better. I don’t know that we can ask for anything more.”

Fujimoto, Swanson, and Huang are being honored for the invention of optical coherence tomography (OCT), a technology that uses reflected light to generate high-resolution images of sensitive tissue, like the eye, in a noninvasive way. OCT, which they introduced in paper published in the journal Science in 1991, has since become the standard of care in ophthalmology and is used in the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases, including macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy.

Earlier this year, the three also won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for this influential work.

“The invention of optical coherence tomography represents one of the biggest engineering breakthroughs from MIT in the past few decades. The impact Professor Fujimoto, Dr. David Huang, and Eric Swanson’s research has had on countless patients across the world is truly remarkable and embodies MIT’s mission to work for the betterment of humankind,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which was established in 1980, recognizes those who have made lasting contributions to America’s competitiveness and quality of life and helped strengthen the nation’s technological workforce. Nominees are selected by a distinguished independent committee representing the private and public sectors.

Fujimoto, Swanson, and Huang join 30 other MIT community members who have been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

From bench-top to clinic

In the early 1990s, Fujimoto, an electrical engineer who had joined the MIT faculty in 1985, was studying biomedical applications of advanced laser technologies. His lab was approached by Carmen Puliafito, an ophthalmologist at the New England Eye Center, who asked if they could explore laser applications for eye surgery.

Huang, then an MD-PhD student in Fujimoto’s lab, began a project aimed at measuring the thickness of the retina using an optical technique called interferometry. They joined forces with Eric Swanson, who was then a satellite communications engineer at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and an expert on space communication using optics. Swanson utilized fiber optics and high-speed detection techniques to build a prototype device that was so sensitive that it could not only take precise measurements of the retina, but also be used to see inside it and enable OCT imaging. The resulting instrument produced the first high-resolution cross-sectional images of the microscopic structure of the retina.

“Eric worked on this initially in his spare time. Because of his involvement, we were able to demonstrate that you could do imaging, and that really required using advanced techniques from satellite and optical communications,” Fujimoto says.

OCT imaging works by shining thin beams of light onto tissue, which penetrate beneath its surface. Structures inside the tissue reflect that light back to a detector, but because structures at different depths reflect light differently, it returns to the detector with a time delay.

A computer measures that time delay to construct a depth profile of the structure. OCT uses multiple passes with light beams to generate a series of depth profiles, which are combined into a cross-sectional or 3D image that can show objects under the tissue’s surface.

The biggest challenge of developing OCT was determining how to capture reflections at the speed of light, Fujimoto says.

“Light from the moon reaches Earth in 1.3 seconds. If you are trying to measure something on the cellular scale in biological tissue, incredibly high time resolution is required. And the amount of light that reflects back is very small, on the order of a billionth of the initial intensity. The combination of these is a very hard thing,” he adds.  

With Swanson’s expertise, they were able to overcome these challenges and design an instrument that could work in a medical setting. Clinician scientists Carmen Puliafito and Joel Schuman at the New England Eye Center led clinical studies to image the eyes of more than 5,000 patients with diabetic retinopathy, age related macular degeneration, and glaucoma. 

“These studies laid the foundation for future applications in ophthalmology as well as the commercialization of OCT. Advances were only possible because of multidisciplinary collaboration spanning clinical medicine, science, and engineering,” Fujimoto says.

Today, OCT is the most commonly used ophthalmologic procedure, with tens of millions of scans performed each year internationally. The technique is so precise it can be used to image structures that are only about a thousandth of a millimeter in size.

The future of optical coherence tomography

Beyond its applications in ophthalmology, OCT has been utilized to image coronary plaques in the heart that can cause sudden cardiac arrest and is also being applied for cancer detection and surgical guidance, and in fundamental research.

At MIT, Fujimoto and his team in the Biomedical Optical Imaging and Biophotonics Group continue to advance OCT technology to obtain greater speeds and higher resolutions. With these advances, the technology can be used to capture changes in the microvascular structure of the retina, which can be an early marker of disease. They have also investigated other applications of OCT, including high-resolution in vivo imaging of the GI tract for early cancer detection.

Dozens of research groups around the world are also working on exciting applications of OCT, Fujimoto says. One promising future direction involves using the technology to map blood vessels and assess blood flow noninvasively by looking at the motion of blood cells. Other groups are utilizing OCT in neuroscience research.

And some companies are now working to create OCT devices that could be used in pharmacies or community health centers to screen for undetected systemic disease, such as diabetes, in larger numbers of patients who don’t have easy access to screening, especially those in underserved communities.

“Development of technology that makes an impact requires continued commitment over a long period of time. Of course you need an inventive advance, but there are a lot of advances along the way that might be perceived as incremental. But when you combine many incremental advances with contributions from the international scientific community and people from different disciplines who have different perspectives, it can be transformative,” Fujimoto says.

An influential researcher and transformative educator

Suresh is being honored with a National Medal of Science for his commitment to research, education, and international collaboration that has advanced the study of material science and its applications to other disciplines, and forged cooperation among people and nations.

“Dr. Suresh’s scholarship and advances the field of materials science are truly remarkable. His ability to foster research collaborations across disciplines — and across borders — has made a lasting impact in academia. Whether it was in his role as dean of engineering at MIT, director of the National Science Foundation, or president of Carnegie Mellon University, his contributions to engineering education have been transformative,” Chandrakasan says.

The National Medal of Science was established in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, it recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. A committee of presidential appointees selects nominees on the basis of extraordinary contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, or the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences.

After earning his doctorate from MIT in mechanical engineering, Suresh joined the faculty at Brown University, where he was promoted to full professor in 1989. He returned to MIT in 1993 as professor of materials science and engineering, and was appointed head of the department seven years later.

During his time as department head, Suresh also served as the Institute’s lead coordinator on the creation of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore. He also founded the Global Enterprise for MicroMechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4), a program designed to promote collaboration, centered around nanomechanics in biomedicine and environmental health, across disciplinary boundaries at a global scale.

Suresh was named dean of the School of Engineering in 2007. During his tenure as dean, the school launched several new initiatives, including the Center for Computational Engineering and the MIT Flexible Engineering Degree Program. He became an emeritus professor in 2010 after being appointed to lead the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Under his leadership, NSF launched the Global Research Council, a virtual organization of heads of science and engineering funding agencies from more than 50 countries, aimed at fostering global collaboration and data sharing. He also oversaw the establishment of the Center-Life Balance program, an initiative to increase the number of doctoral-level women in science and engineering fields from 26 percent to 40 percent between 2011 and 2021.   

Suresh left the NSF in 2013 to become president of Carnegie Mellon University, a role in which he served until 2018 when he was named president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He returned to Brown in 2023 as professor at large in the School of Engineering.

Source: Four from MIT awarded National Medals of Technology, Science

Thelma Golden Wins Gish Prize

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The annual prize is given to someone who has “pushed the boundaries of an art form.” Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said it was a “total surprise.”

Source: Thelma Golden Wins Gish Prize

Ariel Furst and Fan Wang receive 2023 National Institutes of Health awards

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded grants to MIT’s Ariel Furst and Fan Wang, through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. The NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research program awarded 85 new research grants to support exceptionally creative scientists pursuing highly innovative behavioral and biomedical research projects. 

Ariel Furst was selected as the recipient of the NIH Director's New Innovator Award, which has supported unusually innovative research since 2007. Recipients are early-career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant. 

Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, invents technologies to improve human and environmental health by increasing equitable access to resources. Her lab develops transformative technologies to solve problems related to health care and sustainability by harnessing the inherent capabilities of biological molecules and cells. She is passionate about STEM outreach and increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in engineering. 

After completing her PhD at Caltech, where she developed noninvasive diagnostics for colorectal cancer, Furst became an A. O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. There she developed sensors to monitor environmental pollutants. In 2022, Furst was awarded the MIT UROP Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award for her work with undergraduate researchers. She is a now a 2023 Marion Milligan Mason Awardee, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar for Bio-Inspired Solar Energy, and an ARO Early Career Grantee. She is also a co-founder of the regenerative agriculture company, Seia Bio.

Fan Wang received the Pioneer Award, which has been challenging researchers at all career levels to pursue new directions and develop groundbreaking, high impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical and behavioral sciences since 2004.

Wang, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is uncovering the neural circuit mechanisms that govern bodily sensations, like touch, pain, and posture, as well as the mechanisms that control sensorimotor behaviors. Researchers in the Wang lab aim to generate an integrated understanding of the sensation-perception-action process, hoping to find better treatments for diseases like chronic pain, addiction, and movement disorders. Wang’s lab uses genetic, viral, in vivo large-scale electrophysiology and imaging techniques to gain traction in these pursuits.

Wang obtained her PhD at Columbia University, working with Professor Richard Axel. She conducted her postdoctoral work at Stanford University with Mark Tessier-Lavigne, and then subsequently joined Duke University as faculty in 2003. Wang was later appointed as the Morris N. Broad Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology at the Duke University School of Medicine. In January 2023, she joined the faculty of the MIT School of Science and the McGovern Institute.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program is funded through the NIH Common Fund, which supports a series of exceptionally high-impact programs that cross NIH Institutes and Centers. 

“The HRHR program is a pillar for innovation here at NIH, providing support to transformational research, with advances in biomedical and behavioral science,” says Robert W. Eisinger, acting director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Common Fund. “These awards align with the Common Fund’s mandate to support science expected to have exceptionally high and broadly applicable impact.”

NIH issued eight Pioneer Awards, 58 New Innovator Awards, six Transformative Research Awards, and 13 Early Independence Awards in 2023. Funding for the awards comes from the NIH Common Fund; the National Institute of General Medical Sciences; the National Institute of Mental Health; the National Library of Medicine; the National Institute on Aging; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and the Office of Dietary Supplements. 

Source: Ariel Furst and Fan Wang receive 2023 National Institutes of Health awards

Jesse Kroll recognized for excellence in postdoctoral mentoring

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The MIT Postdoctoral Association (PDA) has dedicated its second annual Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Mentoring to Jesse Kroll. Professor of civil and environmental engineering, professor of chemical engineering, and director of the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory, Kroll was nominated by current and former postdocs for his commitment to fostering an inclusive environment and supporting postdocs’ advancement in both research and professional development.

“The award exists to recognize the most outstanding mentors within the MIT faculty,” says Jonathan Cottet, a senior postdoc and past vice president of the MIT Postdoctoral Association, who presented it to Kroll on behalf of the PDA. “It’s also about highlighting the fundamental importance of mentoring postdoctoral scholars, who are poised to become the next generation of academic and scientific leaders. Faculty play a crucial role in postdocs’ academic and career development.”

The award recipient is announced each September at a lunch hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research in recognition of National Postdoc Appreciation Week. Hundreds of postdocs gather for the annual luncheon along with faculty and deans to celebrate the postdoctoral community and its contributions to MIT research excellence.

The nomination letters praised Kroll’s caring and inclusive management style as well as his attentive approach to supporting postdocs’ goals in both research and professional development. Holding weekly meetings with trainees, the letters said, Kroll has taken time to discuss career development, grant proposals, group funding and budgeting, hiring considerations, collaborations, and job application packages. “It is because of these meetings that I feel prepared to start my own group,” one nominator wrote.

Another nominator, who has continued to benefit from Kroll’s advice and support since leaving the lab for a faculty position, commented, “I could not have asked for a more supportive, open, or knowledgeable mentor to advise me throughout my academic career.”

Kroll’s lab conducts experimental studies to better understand Earth’s atmospheric chemistry. By characterizing the properties and chemical transformations of organic species, his research team examines how organics affect air quality and climate.

“What's most important and most rewarding about mentoring postdocs is sharing in the ownership and direction of the research,” says Kroll. “Obviously, the postdoc is the one really doing the work and driving the whole effort, defining the key questions and next steps. But at the same time this isn't done in isolation. So the mentor's job isn't just to advise on the progress of the research; it's also to help think about how it connects to, or even expands on, the broader goals of the research program — and not just the PI's current one, but also the postdoc's future one.”

“This shared sense of purpose — which is also about the postdoc getting the job they want afterwards! — is for me the most meaningful and fun aspect of working with postdocs,” Kroll says.

Recipients of the Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Mentoring are selected, with input from the Faculty Postdoctoral Advisory Committee, on the basis of four criteria:

  • excellence in fostering and encouraging professional skills development and growth toward independence;
  • ability to foster an inclusive work environment where postdoctoral mentees across a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives are empowered to engage in the mentee-mentor relationship;
  • ability to support postdoctoral mentees in their pursuit of a chosen career path; and
  • a commitment to a continued professional mentoring relationship with mentees, beyond the limit of the postdoctoral term.

Notably, one-third of the nomination letters this year were submitted by former postdocs, reflecting the lasting influence of mentors who set them on a path to success.

“One of the great pleasures of my tenure as vice president for research has been the collaborative relationship with the Postdoc Association to improve the postdoc experience at MIT,” says Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research, who supported the award’s creation last year, along with Ann Skoczenski, director of MIT Postdoctoral Services. “Successive groups of PDA leaders have met the challenges of the past few years with the creation of programs and initiatives that build community and help postdocs navigate MIT.”

The Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Mentoring provides a celebratory lunch for the recipient’s research group, as well as the opportunity to deliver a seminar on the topic of mentoring for the postdoctoral community. Last year’s award went to Muriel Médard, NEC Professor of Software Science and Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Source: Jesse Kroll recognized for excellence in postdoctoral mentoring

Twelve with MIT ties elected to the National Academy of Medicine for 2023

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The National Academy of Medicine announced the election of 100 new members to join their esteemed ranks in 2023, among them five MIT faculty members and seven additional affiliates.

MIT professors Daniel Anderson, Regina Barzilay, Guoping Feng, Darrell Irvine, and Morgen Sheng were among the new members. Justin Hanes PhD ’96, Said Ibrahim MBA ’16, and Jennifer West ’92, along with three former students in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) — Michael Chiang, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Robert Vonderheide — were also elected, as was Yi Zhang, an associate member of The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service, the academy noted in announcing the election of its new members.

MIT faculty

Daniel G. Anderson, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, was elected “for pioneering the area of non-viral gene therapy and cellular delivery. His work has resulted in fundamental scientific advances; over 500 papers, patents, and patent applications; and the creation of companies, products, and technologies that are now in the clinic.” Anderson is an affiliate of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the Ragon Institute at MGH, MIT and Harvard.

Regina Barzilay, the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor for AI and Health within the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, was elected “for the development of machine learning tools that have been transformational for breast cancer screening and risk assessment, and for the development of molecular design tools broadly utilized for drug discovery.” Barzilay is the AI faculty lead within the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health and an affiliate of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and Koch Institute.

Guoping Feng, the associate director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Professor of Neuroscience in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and an affiliate of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was elected “for his breakthrough discoveries regarding the pathological mechanisms of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders, providing foundational knowledges and molecular targets for developing effective therapeutics for mental illness such as OCD, ASD, and ADHD.”

Darrell J. Irvine ’00, the Underwood-Prescott Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, was elected “for the development of novel methods for delivery of immunotherapies and vaccines for cancer and infectious diseases.”
Morgan Sheng, professor of neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, with affiliations in the McGovern Institute and The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, as well as the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was elected “for transforming the understanding of excitatory synapses. He revealed the postsynaptic density as a protein network controlling synaptic signaling and morphology; established the paradigm of signaling complexes organized by PDZ scaffolds; and pioneered the concept of localized regulation of mitochondria, apoptosis, and complement for targeted synapse elimination.”

Additional MIT affiliates

Michael F. Chiang, a former student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) who is now director of the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, was honored “for pioneering applications of biomedical informatics to ophthalmology in artificial intelligence, telehealth, pediatric retinal disease, electronic health records, and data science, including methodological and diagnostic advances in AI for pediatric retinopathy of prematurity, and for contributions to developing and implementing the largest ambulatory care registry in the United States.”

Justin Hanes PhD ’96, who earned his PhD from the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, was honored “for pioneering discoveries and inventions of innovative drug delivery technologies, especially mucosal, ocular, and central nervous system drug delivery systems; and for international leadership in research and education at the interface of engineering, medicine, and entrepreneurship, leading to clinical translation of drug delivery technologies.”

Said Ibrahim MBA ’16, a graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management who is now a senior vice president and chair of the Department of Medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, was honored for influential “health services research on racial disparities in elective joint replacement that has provided a national model for advancing health equity research beyond the identification of inequities and toward their remediation, and for his research that has been leveraged to engage diverse and innovative emerging scholars.”

Siddhartha Mukherjee, a former student in HST who is now an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University School of Medicine, was honored “for contributing important research in the immunotherapy of myeloid malignancies, such as acute myeloid leukemia, for establishing international centers for immunotherapy for childhood cancers, and for the discovery of tissue-resident stem cells.”

Robert H. Vonderheide, a former student in HST who is now a professor and vice dean at the Perelman School of Medicine and vice president of cancer programs at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, was honored “for developing immune combination therapies for patients with pancreatic cancer by driving proof-of-concept from lab to clinic, then leading national, randomized clinical trials for therapy, maintenance, and interception; and for improving access of minority individuals to clinical trials while directing an NCI comprehensive cancer center.”

Jennifer West ’92, a graduate of the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering who is now a professor of biomedical engineering and dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, was honored “for the invention, development, and translation of novel biomaterials including bioactive, photopolymerizable hydrogels and theranostic nanoparticles.”

Yi Zhang, associate member of the Broad Institute, was honored “for making fundamental contributions to the epigenetics field through systematic identification and characterization of chromatin modifying enzymes, including EZH2, JmjC, and Tet. His proof-of-principle work on EZH2 inhibitors led to the founding of Epizyme and eventual making of tazemetostat, a drug approved for epithelioid sarcoma and follicular lymphoma.”

“It is my honor to welcome this truly exceptional class of new members to the National Academy of Medicine,” said NAM President Victor J. Dzau. “Their contributions to health and medicine are unparalleled, and their leadership and expertise will be essential to helping the NAM tackle today’s urgent health challenges, inform the future of health care, and ensure health equity for the benefit of all around the globe.”

Source: Twelve with MIT ties elected to the National Academy of Medicine for 2023

MIT SHASS Diversity Predoctoral Fellowship Program welcomes 2023-24 class

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The MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) Diversity Predoctoral Fellowship program recently welcomed its 2023-24 class.

The purpose of the program is to enhance diversity in SHASS and to provide fellows with additional professional support and mentoring as they enter the field.

The fellowships are intended to support scholars from a wide range of backgrounds, who can contribute to the diversity of SHASS and the higher education community. 

Fellowships support graduate scholars for a nine-month appointment at MIT that generally runs from September through May. They offer an opportunity for scholars who plan a career in higher education and have completed all other PhD requirements to finish their dissertations with access to libraries and faculty of the school.

Danah Alfailakawi, MIT Literature

Alfailakawi's dissertation, titled “The Abject Queer: Barely being, nonhumans, and death worlds on the Arabian Peninsula,” brings the fields of psychoanalysis, queer of color critique, and critical race theory to contemporary literatures of the Arabian Peninsula. In her dissertation, she defines queerness as that which absorbs the cataclysmic violence necessary to erect and sustain subjectivity. In doing so, she poses the questions: Which historical processes and modes of being are central to the stabilization of a dominant Gulf subjectivity? How do these processes and modes of being create bodies, spaces, and worlds that are abject and queer, for the sustenance of the normative subject? Who and what fulfill the role of the abject queer not only in the Gulf, but on a global scale? Throughout her writing, Alfailakawi draws from the methods of Indigenous poetics, Black radical feminists, and women of color feminisms to play with erotica, storytelling, memory work, and citational practice, thus contributing to a body of scholarship that aims to reshape the very form of academic research.

Nina Dewi Toft Djanegara, MIT Anthropology

Nina Dewi Toft Djanegara is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her dissertation examines the use of facial recognition to govern U.S. borders and interrogates the sociocultural significance of the face as a symbol. In particular, she draws upon ethnographic and archival methods to understand how facial recognition technology makes claims about identity, citizenship, and belonging. Djanegara holds a MS in environmental science from Yale University and a BA in international development studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Her interest in the use of technology to “solve” political problems derives from her early career in climate change impact assessment and climate modeling.

Alessandra Jungs de Almeida, Program in Women's and Gender Studies

In the context of feminist and anti-feminist organizations’ disputes in Argentina and Brazil, de Almeida's research analyzes the efforts of both groups of organizations to act in the political structure of opportunities to promote and internalize international norms over the legalization and criminalization of abortion in the region. Concerning this framework of analysis, her main research question is: How did feminist and anti-feminist organizations use the political structure of opportunities to promote and internalize norms in the abortion rights agenda in Brazil and Argentina and internationally? This exploratory and qualitative research will be used for future comparative analysis. She hopes to identify similarities and differences in the actions of each group of organizations (feminist and anti-feminist) on how they promote and internalize international norms and build the political structure of opportunities in which they will act. Through this analysis, she will be able to formulate well-supported hypotheses on the reasons for different results in both countries.

Amber Mackey, Department of Political Science

Mackey is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting scholar at MIT. Her research examines public policy, representation, and race and ethnic politics in the United States. Specifically, Mackey's research explores when policies about race make it to the political agenda and how these policies impact existing racial inequalities. Her dissertation utilizes text analysis to track legislative attention to race across states and the federal government. Through this work she aims to document how variations in attention, responsiveness, and policy outputs impact the lived realities of people of color.

Somayeh Tohidi, MIT Philosophy

Scientists are not the sole recipients of statistical studies, and peer-reviewed journals are not the exclusive medium for the dissemination of these studies. Statistics and claims backed by statistical evidence are used in articles aimed at lay audiences. Tohidi's research focuses on how we ought to receive and interpret statistical evidence, considering our limited cognitive capacities and varying levels of knowledge about the field and the specific study generating the statistical evidence. She also investigates how these statistical claims relate to social stereotypes. Specifically, she addresses the question of how we, as bounded rational agents, should approach statistical studies that confirm social stereotypes. At this stage, she refers to her project as “Statistical Evidence with a Humane Face.”

Vanessa Noemi Velez, MIT Anthropology

Velez’s dissertation traces the environmental and political history of metro-Atlanta’s rapid economic development from the beginning of national urban renewal in 1949 to 1996 when the city cemented its status as a global hub after hosting the Centennial Olympics. In particular, she focuses on how Atlanta’s early and enthusiastic embrace of globalization and new urban planning and engineering trends led to great economic success and widespread celebration as the new “Black Mecca” for African American business and culture. Unfortunately, this progress came at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable communities and their local environments — the consequences of which Atlanta is struggling to overcome today.

Biyi Wen, MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing

Biyi Wen will be working in conjunction with Professor Nick Montfort in The Trope Tank to develop her dissertation project “TextBox: an intermedia assemblage on the history of Chinese text processing.” The project consists of two parts, a media archive and a dissertation. The media archive is a web repository for text processing artifacts that she collected by consulting various institutions for computing history and East Asian studies as an archivist, such as character types, text processors, computers, and computational language processing models. The dissertation investigates the material and epistemic ruptures and continuities of these artifacts under three time periods: pre-computing, analog to digital computing, and cloud computing.

Source: MIT SHASS Diversity Predoctoral Fellowship Program welcomes 2023-24 class

James Fujimoto, Eric Swanson, and David Huang win Lasker Award

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The Lasker Foundation has named James Fujimoto ’79, SM ’81, PhD ’84, the Elihu Thomson Professor in Electrical Engineering and principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), a recipient of the 2023 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for his groundbreaking work on optical coherence tomography. Fujimoto shares the award with Eric Swanson SM ’84, a research affiliate at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and mentor for the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, and David Huang ’85, SM ’89, PhD ’93, professor of ophthalmology at Oregon Health and Science University.

Considered one of the most prestigious prizes for biomedical research, the Lasker Awards celebrate individuals who have “made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of human disease.” A large percentage of Lasker Award recipients have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.  

According to the Lasker Foundation citation, Fujimoto, Huang, and Swanson are being honored “for the invention of optical coherence tomography (OCT), a technology that revolutionized ophthalmology — allowing rapid detection of diseases of the retina that impair vision.” An animated video describing the work is available here.

“I am honored to be included among the recipients of this award,” says Fujimoto. “OCT represents the decades-long effort of a multidisciplinary partnership involving scientists, engineers, the clinical community, and industry. We are grateful for the opportunity to help to improve patient care and sincerely thank the Lasker Foundation.”

Prior to the invention of OCT, the standard methods of diagnosing ophthalmic disease were limited. In the early 1990s, Fujimoto, an electrical engineer and expert in advanced laser technologies, collaborated with satellite communications engineer Swanson — then at MIT Lincoln Laboratory — and MD-PhD student Huang to devise a better way to diagnose diseases. Using an optical technique known as interferometry, they developed a technology that could image the three dimensional microscopic structure of the living retina for the first time.  

Their work, published in 1991 in the journal Science, revolutionized the field of ophthalmology and enabled a more precise way to detect disease and monitor treatment. Additional co-authors on this paper are Charles P. Lin, Joel S. Schuman, William G. Stinson, Warren Chang, Michael R. Hee, Thomas Flotte, Kenton Gregory, and Carmen A. Puliafito.

Revolutionizing ophthalmology with echoes of light

To understand how optical coherence tomography works, it’s useful to consider other imaging methods which use echoes. “OCT is an optical analogue of ultrasound or radar,” explains Fujimoto. “Instead of sound, it measures echo delays of reflected or scattered light in order to image the subsurface microstructure in tissues or materials in situ.”

The short wavelength of light allows for microscopic resolution of the images generated by OCT, but using light — as opposed to sound, which travels slower and has longer wavelengths — introduces thorny technological problems.

“The speed of light is extremely fast,” notes Fujimoto. “Light from the moon travels to earth in 1.3 seconds. So, in order to measure echo time delay over the very small dimensions in biological tissues, you need extremely high-resolution measurement technology.” 

Here, Fujimoto, Swanson, and Huang found that their differing backgrounds enhanced their problem-solving capabilities. 

“OCT uses many of the advances that were developed in high-speed optical communications,” explains Fujimoto. One of the team’s realizations was that infrared light provided good penetration of human tissues and interferometry could achieve the required high resolution and sensitivity. This made it possible to measure the “echo time” of reflected or scattered infrared light waves, thus creating a microscopic-resolution, three-dimensional image of subsurface structures inside tissues.

Performing Optical Biopsy

Importantly, the technology is not a substitute for ultrasound, CT or MRI, but rather a different tool with unique and complementary strengths. MRI, CT and ultrasound can penetrate deep into the body to create a full-body image, but have limited resolution. OCT can perform “optical biopsy,” imaging subsurface structure with microscopic resolution, without the need to excise and process specimens. OCT has limited imaging depth in tissues other than the eye, but can be combined with other optical instruments to image inside the body.

OCT could not have been developed without interdisciplinary collaboration with clinician scientists. Carmen Puliafito and Joel Schuman, then at the New England Eye Center and Tufts University School of Medicine, respectively, led the first clinical studies developing OCT in diabetic retinopathy, age related macular degeneration and glaucoma. These studies helped define the future clinical applications of OCT and commercialization in ophthalmology.

Retinal imaging became the largest application of OCT; in ophthalmologists’ offices worldwide, it is now considered the standard of care for diagnosing and monitoring eye disease. OCT has also helped improve understanding of disease mechanisms and accelerated development of new pharmaceutical treatments.

Many ophthalmologists say that OCT allows the non-specialist to detect disease with the sensitivity approaching that of a specialist. Diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma which may not produce noticeable symptoms at an early stage, can be detected and treated before there is irreversible vision loss.  

Now, applications of OCT are being developed for even broader public usage outside of ophthalmology clinics. “In the future it will be possible to screen for diseases by having an automated OCT exam in local drug stores. The eye is a window on health – in addition to vision impairing eye diseases, OCT can enable detection of systemic disease such as diabetes and neurological conditions. The impact on public health could be immense,” explains Fujimoto.

OCT also has applications far beyond ophthalmology. The team quickly realized that fiber optics could be used to extend OCT’s reach into deeper areas of the body, imaging through catheters, endoscopes, and laparoscopes.

Intravascular imaging is the second largest application of OCT and was developed in collaboration with Mark Brezinski, a cardiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Brezinski demonstrated that OCT could detect unstable atherosclerotic plaques which cause heart attacks and led many of the first studies demonstrating OCT for optical biopsy.

“There are tissues that are not typically biopsied, such as retina, coronary arteries, nerves, and brain where OCT can provide information on pathology in situ and in real-time,” says Fujimoto. “Another application is surgical guidance — you can see beneath the tissue surface to avoid sensitive nerves and blood vessels before making an incision.”

With many research groups and clinics developing technology and applications, OCT stands as a shining example of the potential of interdisciplinary, and international, scientific cooperation. “Interdisciplinary collaboration is very popular now, but it was relatively uncommon in the 1990s, when OCT was first developed,” explains Fujimoto.

The success of OCT and its growing list of applications, is, for Fujimoto, a powerful reminder of the importance of cross-disciplinary work. “In medicine, as well as in many other fields, there is increasing use of technologies, including advanced hardware and analysis technologies as well as AI. Modern medicine can draw upon these technologies to advance patient care and reduce mortality.”

Source: James Fujimoto, Eric Swanson, and David Huang win Lasker Award

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