Merging science and systems thinking to make materials more sustainable

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For Professor Elsa Olivetti, tackling a problem as large and complex as climate change requires not only lab research but also understanding the systems of production that power the global economy.

Her career path reflects a quest to investigate materials at scales ranging from the microscopic to the mass-manufactured.

“I’ve always known what questions I wanted to ask, and then set out to build the tools to help me ask those questions,” says Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering.

Olivetti, who earned tenure in 2022 and was recently appointed associate dean of engineering, has sought to equip students with similar skills, whether in the classroom, in her lab group, or through the interdisciplinary programs she leads at MIT. Those efforts have earned her accolades including the Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship in 2021, and the McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising in 2023.

“I think to make real progress in sustainability, materials scientists need to think in interdisciplinary, systems-level ways, but at a deep technical level,” Olivetti says. “Supporting my students so that’s something that a lot more people can do is very rewarding for me.”

Her mission to make materials more sustainable also makes Olivetti grateful she’s at MIT, which has a long tradition of both interdisciplinary collaboration and technical know-how.

“MIT’s core competencies are well-positioned for bold achievements in climate and sustainability — the deep expertise on the economics side, the frontier knowledge in science, the computational creativity,” Olivetti says. “It’s a really exciting time and place where the key ingredients for progress are simmering in transformative ways.”

Answering the call

The moment that set Olivetti on her life’s journey began when she was 8, with a knock at her door. Her parents were in the other room, so Olivetti opened the door and met an organizer for Greenpeace, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of environmental issues.

“I had a chat with that guy and got hooked on environmental concerns,” Olivetti says. “I still remember that conversation.”

The interaction changed the way Olivetti thought about her place in the world, and her new perspective manifested itself in some unique ways. Her elementary school science fair projects became elaborate pursuits of environmental solutions involving burying various items in the backyard to test for biodegradability. There was also an awkward attempt at natural pesticide development, which lead to a worm hatching in her bedroom.

As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Olivetti gravitated toward classes in environmentalism and materials science.

“There was a link between materials science and a broader, systems way of framing design for environment, and that just clicked for me in terms of the way I wanted to think about environmental problems — from the atom to the system,” Olivetti recalls.

That interest led Olivetti to MIT for a PhD in 2001, where she studied the feasibility of new materials for lithium-ion batteries.

“I really wanted to be thinking of things at a systems level, but I wanted to ground that in lab-based research,” Olivetti says. “I wanted an experiential experience in grad school, and that’s why I chose MIT’s program.”

Whether it was her undergraduate studies, her PhD, or her ensuing postdoc work at MIT, Olivetti sought to learn new skills to continue bridging the gap between materials science and environmental systems thinking.

“I think of it as, ‘Here’s how I can build up the ways I ask questions,’” Olivetti explains. “How do we design these materials while thinking about their implications as early as possible?”

Since joining MIT’s faculty in 2014, Olivetti has developed computational models to measure the cost and environmental impact of new materials, explored ways to adopt more sustainable and circular supply chains, and evaluated potential materials limitations as lithium-ion battery production is scaled. That work helps companies increase their use of greener, recyclable materials and more sustainably dispose of waste.

Olivetti believes the wide scope of her research gives the students in her lab a more holistic understanding of the life cycle of materials.

When the group started, each student was working on a different aspect of the problem — like on the natural language processing pipeline, or on recycling technology assessment, or beneficial use of waste — and now each student can link each of those pieces in their research,” Olivetti explains.

Beyond her research, Olivetti also co-directs the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, which has established a set of eight areas of sustainability that it organizes coalitions around. Each coalition involves technical leaders at companies and researchers at MIT that work together to accelerate the impact of MIT’s research by helping companies adopt innovative and more sustainable technologies.

“Climate change mitigation and resilience is such a complex problem, and at MIT we have practice in working together across disciplines on many challenges,” Olivetti says. “It’s been exciting to lean on that culture and unlock ways to move forward more effectively.”

Bridging divides

Today, Olivetti tries to maximize the impact of her and her students’ research in materials industrial ecology by maintaining close ties to applications. In her research, this means working directly with aluminum companies to design alloys that could incorporate more scrap material or with nongovernmental organizations to incorporate agricultural residues in building products. In the classroom, that means bringing in people from companies to explain how they think about concepts like heat exchange or fluid flow in their products.

“I enjoy trying to ground what students are learning in the classroom with what’s happening in the world,” Olivetti explains.

Exposing students to industry is also a great way to help them think about their own careers. In her research lab, she’s started using the last 30 minutes of meetings to host talks from people working in national labs, startups, and larger companies to show students what they can do after their PhDs. The talks are similar to the Industry Seminar series Olivetti started that pairs undergraduate students with people working in areas like 3D printing, environmental consulting, and manufacturing.

“It’s about helping students learn what they’re excited about,” Olivetti says.

Whether in the classroom, lab, or at events held by organizations like MCSC, Olivetti believes collaboration is humanity’s most potent tool to combat climate change.

“I just really enjoy building links between people,” Olivetti says. “Learning about people and meeting them where they are is a way that one can create effective links. It’s about creating the right playgrounds for people to think and learn.”

Source: Merging science and systems thinking to make materials more sustainable

Dennis Whyte steps down as director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center

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Dennis Whyte, who spearheaded the development of the world’s most powerful fusion electromagnet and grew the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s research volume by more than 50 percent, has announced he will be stepping down as the center’s director at the end of the year in order to devote his full attention to teaching, engaging in cutting-edge fusion research, and pursuing entrepreneurial activities at the PSFC.

“The reason I came to MIT as a faculty member in ’06 was because of the PSFC and the very special place it held and still holds in fusion,” says Whyte, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. When he was appointed director of the PSFC in 2015, Whyte saw it as an opportunity to realize even more of the PSFC’s potential: “After 10 years I think we’ve seen that dream come to life. Research and entrepreneurship are stronger than ever.”

Whyte’s passion has always been for fusion — the process by which light elements combine to form heavier ones, releasing massive amounts of energy. One hundred years ago fusion was solely the provenance of astronomers’ speculation; through the efforts of generations of scientists and engineers, fusion now holds the potential to offer humanity an entirely new source of clean, abundant energy — and Whyte has been at the forefront of that effort.

“Fusion’s challenges require interdisciplinary work, so it’s always fresh, and you get these unexpected intersections that can have wild outcomes. As an inherently curious person, fusion is perfect for me.”

Whyte’s enthusiasm is legendary, especially when it comes to teaching. The effects of that enthusiasm are easy to see: At the start of his tenure, only a handful of students chose to pursue plasma physics and fusion science. Since then, the number of students has ballooned, and this year nearly 100 students from six departments are working with 15 faculty members.

Of the growth, Whyte says, “It’s not just that we have more students; it’s that they’re working on more diverse topics, and their passion to make fusion a reality is the best part of the PSFC. Seeing full seminars and classes is fundamentally why I’m here.”

Even as he managed the directorship and pursued his own scholarly work, Whyte remained active in the classroom and continued advising students. Zach Hartwig, a former student who is now a PSFC researcher and MIT faculty member himself, recalled his first meeting with Whyte as an incoming PhD student: “I had to choose between several projects and advisors and meeting Dennis made my decision easy. He catapulted out of his chair and started sketching his vision for a new fusion diagnostic that many people thought was crazy. His passion and eagerness to tackle only the most difficult problems in the field was immediately tangible.”

For the past 13 years Whyte has offered a fusion technology design class that has generated several key breakthroughs, including liquid immersion blankets essential for converting fusion energy to heat, inside launch radio frequency systems used to stabilize fusing plasmas, and high-temperature superconducting electromagnets that have opened the door to the possibility of fusion devices that are not only smaller, but also more powerful and efficient.

In fact, the potential of these electromagnets was significant enough that Whyte, an MIT postdoc, and three of Whyte’s former students (Hartwig among them) spun out a private fusion company to fully realize the magnets’ capabilities. Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) both launched and signed a cooperative research agreement with the PSFC in 2018, and the founders’ vision parlayed into significant external investment, allowing a coalition of CFS and PSFC researchers to refine and develop the electromagnets first conceived in Whyte’s class.

Three years later, after a historic day of testing, the magnet produced a field strength of 20 tesla, making it the most powerful fusion superconducting electromagnet in the world. According to Whyte, “The success of the TFMC magnet is an encapsulation of everything PSFC. It would’ve been impossible for a single investigator, or a lone spin-out, but we brought together all these disciplines in a team that could execute innovatively and incredibly quickly. We shortened the timescale not just for this project, but for fusion as a whole.”

CFS remains an important collaborator, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the PSFC’s current research portfolio. While Whyte has no financial stake in the company, he remains a principal investigator on CFS’s SPARC project, a proof-of-concept fusion device predicted to produce more energy than it consumes, ready in 2025. SPARC is the lead-up to ARC, CFS’s commercially scalable fusion power plant planned to arrive in the early 2030s.

The collaboration between CFS and MIT followed a blueprint that had been piloted more than a decade prior, when the Italian energy company Eni S.p.A signed on as a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative to develop low-carbon technologies. After many years of successfully working in tandem with MITEI to advance renewable energy research, in 2018 Eni made a significant investment in a young CFS to assist in realizing commercial fusion power, which in turn indirectly funded PSFC research; Eni also collaborated directly with the PSFC to create the Laboratory for Innovative Fusion Technologies, which remains active.

Whyte believes that “thoughtful and meaningful collaboration with the energy industry can make a difference with research and climate change. Industry engagement is very relevant — it changed both of us. Now Eni has fusion in their portfolio.” The arrangement is a demonstration of how public-private collaborations can accelerate the progress of fusion science, and ultimately the arrival of fusion power.

Whyte’s move to diversify collaborators, leverage the PSFC’s strength as a multidisciplinary hub, and expand research volume was essential to the center’s survival and growth. Early in his tenure, a shift in funding priorities necessitated the shutdown of Alcator C-Mod, the fusion research device in operation at the PSFC for 23 years — though not before C-Mod set the world record for plasma pressure on its last day of operation. Through this transition, Whyte and the members of his leadership team were able to keep the PSFC whole.

One alumnus was a particular source of inspiration to Whyte during that time: “Reinier [Beeuwkes] said to me, ‘what you’re doing doesn’t just matter to students and MIT, it matters to the world.’ That was so meaningful, and his words really sustained me when I was feeling major doubt.” In 2022 Beeuwkes won the MIT Alumni Better World Service Award for his support of fusion and the PSFC. Since 2018, sponsored research at the PSFC has more than doubled, as have the number of personnel.

Whyte’s determination to build and maintain a strong community is a prevailing feature of his leadership. Matt Fulton, who started at the PSFC in 1987 and is now director of operations, says of Whyte, “You want a leader like Dennis on your worst days. We were staring down disaster and he had a plan to hold the PSFC together, and somehow it worked. The research was important, but the people have always been more important to him. We’re so lucky to have him.”

The Office of the Vice President for Research is launching a search for the PSFC’s next leader. Should the search extend beyond the end of the year, an interim director will be appointed.  

“As MIT works to magnify its impact in the areas of climate and sustainability, Dennis has built the PSFC into an extraordinary resource for the Institute to draw upon,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “His leadership has positioned MIT on the leading edge of fusion research and the emerging commercial fusion industry, and while the nature of his contributions will change, ... the value he brings to the MIT community will remain clear. As Dennis steps down as director, the PSFC is ascendant.” 

Source: Dennis Whyte steps down as director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center

Professor Emeritus Willard R. Johnson, political scientist who specialized in African studies, dies at 87

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Willard R. Johnson, a professor emeritus in the MIT Department of Political Science who focused his scholarly research on the political development of Africa, died in late October at age 87. Johnson served as a member of the MIT faculty for nearly 60 years, while also founding and participating in numerous civic initiatives aimed at making political and social advances in Africa and the U.S., and building engagement between the two regions.

Johnson joined the political science faculty in 1964 as an assistant professor. He was the first Black faculty member at MIT to rise through the ranks and achieve tenure from within, and he created a broad portfolio of accomplishments. Johnson conducted extensive fieldwork in Africa, published important contributions to the study of African political institutions and independence movements, advocated for the inclusion of more Black scholars in the MIT community, and served as a leading voice at MIT and in the Boston area against South Africa’s apartheid.

Johnson also held visiting positions at Harvard Business School, Boston University, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, in addition to his time as a faculty member and emeritus professor at MIT.

Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1935 and moved to Pasadena, California, where he graduated from Muir High School. He earned his AA from Pasadena City College in 1955, and a BA in international relations from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1957. At UCLA, he served as student body president, and also helped to found the campus’ chapter of the NAACP. Notably, he was also responsible for bringing W.E.B. Dubois to campus as a speaker. Johnson later received his MA degree in African studies with distinction from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in 1961, and his PhD in political science from Harvard University, in 1965.

Johnson’s Harvard dissertation, “Cameroon Reunification: The Political Union of Several Africas,” formed the basis of his first book, published as “The Cameroon Federation” by Princeton University Press in 1970. In a review of the book in the Journal of Modern African Studies, W. Norman Haupt wrote, “This carefully prepared book is based upon a sound, objective understanding of local facts and preferences,” while noting that it “is filled with those minute details of history which make for exciting reading.”

Johnson himself would say that his most important accomplishment while at UCLA was meeting his wife, Vivian Johnson. They not only formed a lasting bond in marriage, but also became scholarly collaborators and jointly published “West African Governments and Volunteer Development Organizations: Priorities for Partnership” (University Press of America, 1990). Political scientist Pearl T. Robinson of Tufts University called it “required reading for anyone seeking insights into the struggles that are being waged to promote increased political pluralism and alternative development strategies in contemporary Africa.”

Johnson remained impressively active in politics and public service throughout his life. From 1968 to 1970, he took a leave from MIT to serve as executive director of Circle, a Roxbury, Massachusetts-based community development organization. In 1972, he directed the Africa Policy Task Force for the George McGovern for President committee, and served on the Democratic Party Advisory Council’s Foreign Affairs Study Group. He also served on the U.S. National Committee for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Johnson later became a leading voice at MIT, and nationally, in the anti-apartheid movement. He led the Boston chapter of TransAfrica’s Free South Africa Movement. As Johnson noted, in an interview for the Department of Political Science’s 50th anniversary celebration, he was arrested, along with Nobel laureate George Wald of Harvard and other local luminaries, at an anti-apartheid rally in Boston. Johnson was proud to be actively involved in Nelson Mandela's visit to Boston in 1990, part of the anti-apartheid leader’s momentous trip to the U.S.

In 1991, a few years before stepping down from his faculty position, Johnson founded the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History, which promotes the preservation and documentation of family identity, traditions, and accomplishments of members of the African American and Native American communities of the Midwest.

Johnson’s 2001 paper published in the Black History Bulletin, “Tracing Trails of Blood on Ice: Commemorating ‘The Great Escape’ of 1861-62 of Indians and Blacks into Kansas,” chronicled a significant episode in this underexplored regional history. He remained active with the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History until his passing.

Johnson also founded the Boston Pan-African Forum, a group promoting mutually beneficial relations between the United States and the people of Africa, and remained an active part of it throughout his later years. 

Throughout his time at MIT, Johnson was an active voice in support of diversifying the Institute faculty and student community, and pushing for greater opportunities for Black faculty and students alike. Johnson was proud of the accomplishments of Institute students such as Georgia Persons PhD ’78, a political scientist who is now a professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech; and Marsha Coleman-Adebayo PhD ’82, a leading advocate against workplace discrimination whose experiences helped generate passage of the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act, signed into federal law in 2002. 

In seeking to build stronger ties between scholarly communities, Johnson also initiated a joint seminar in political science between MIT and Howard University, in the mid-1970s, an effort concluding with combined class session for all the participating students from both institutions.

Johnson remained a visible presence in the political science department following his transition to professor emeritus in 1996. Colleagues fortunate enough to cross paths with him were greeted with a tremendously warm smile. Those who knew him during his time on the faculty have fond memories of him stopping by their offices to check in, inquire about family members, and give the distinctive encouragement and kind understanding which, through his extraordinary experience and character, only he could offer.

Source: Professor Emeritus Willard R. Johnson, political scientist who specialized in African studies, dies at 87

Writing code, and decoding the world

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Several years ago, MIT anthropologist Héctor Beltrán ’07 attended an event in Mexico billed as the first all-women’s hackathon in Latin America. But the programmers were not the only women there. When the time came for the hackathon pitches, a large number of family members arrived to watch.

“Grandmothers and mothers showed up to cheer up the hackathon participants,” Beltrán says. “That’s something I had never seen in the U.S. It was inspiring. It felt good to see people who are usually excluded from these spaces being welcomed as part of this infrastructure of innovation.”

In a sense, the grandmothers hacked the hackathon. After all, hackathons started as male-dominated code-writing marathons, often inaccessible to women — who, even when they join tech or other professions, also handle much of the “second shift,” the unpaid family work women have been doing for generations. As one of the hackers told Beltrán, her grandmother “helps with everything in the day to day. She is the one that is in charge of everything.”

But having so many women in the hackathon audience, Beltrán observes, made visible an often-ignored point: All that unpaid work by women is part of the “infrastructure” that has let men code and innovate and build their own careers.

“Things people normally don’t think about, even like the structure of a hackathon, being there the whole weekend with your buddies, is something that has not been feasible for many women,” Beltrán says.

Now, in a new book, “Code Work: Hacking Across the US/México Techno-Borderlands,” published today by Princeton University Press, Beltrán closely explores the relationship between computer culture and society in Mexico. In it, he finds that coding is more than writing code: It’s an activity generating fruitful reflection by the coders — about themselves, their political and economic circumstances, and what roles they can play in society.

“A core concept of the book is precisely that as you’re coding and participating in these events, you’re also constructing a sense of yourself and how you fit into these larger societal structures and engines of difference,” says Beltrán, who is the Class of 1957 Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s anthropology program.

Breaking into the field

“Code Work” builds on field research Beltrán conducted in Mexico, attending hackathons, conducting interviews, and scrutinizing the country’s politics and economy. However, the roots of the project go back to Beltrán’s undergraduate days at MIT, where he majored in computer science and engineering. After graduating, Beltrán worked in consulting; a trip to Mexico City helped spur his interest in the differences between the tech sectors in Mexico and in the U.S.

“I saw that there was really a disconnect between different cultures,” Beltrán says.

As such, “Code Work” is an exploration of coding both as it is practiced within Mexico and in its relationship to U.S. computing culture. The book focuses extensively on hackathons, as events where the enjoyment and promise of tech innovation are evident, along with the tensions in the field.

In contrast to the U.S., where hackers have often gained cachet as “disruptors” shaking up the civic order, in Mexico coders are often trying to enter the established economic order — while also trying to use technology for social innovations.

“Usually we think about hacking in the Global North as a way to break out of certain constraints,” Beltrán says. “But in the Global South, there are people who have been excluded from these global cultures of innovation and computing. Their hacking work [is a means of] trying to break in to these larger cultures of computing.”

To be sure, Beltrán notes, tech culture in the U.S. has not always been enormously inclusive either. Referring to one Latino MIT student he observed who went to Mexico to participate in hackathons, Beltrán says, “I see this kind of move to go the Global South as a way to present yourself as someone from an innovative culture and be respected as an expert — to break out of the Global North’s own hierarchies.”

In studying matters of gender and tech culture, Beltrán examines issues involving masculinity and coding as well. The sheer hard work of coding can drive people to great accomplishments, but at times coders can be “outworking other people to the point of exploitation,” he notes. And while “the information technology economy wants you to think,” the labor of coding “complicates the divison of mind and hand.”

In the book, Beltrán also locates hackers who question the value of the hackathons they are participating in, noting that the winning entries rarely seem to become widely used applications; some hackathons function more as advertisements for innovation than engines of it. The tension between hacker independence and the larger corporate structures they perceive is a key motif in the book.

Such observations underscore Beltrán’s view that hackers, while producing code, are highly reflective as well, actively thinking about their place in society, their political economy, and more. These hackers, Beltrán finds, often apply the intellectual concepts of coding to the world in illuminating ways. One hacker Beltrán meets views his own career as a series of “loosely coupled” jobs — borrowing a computing term for marginally connected components. In the hacker’s view, this has a positive aspect, in contrast to a career dedicated to working only for one firm of subjectively questionable value.

Thought piece

“Code Work” has earned praise from other scholars in the field. Gabriella Coleman, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University who also studies hackers, has called the book “lucid, well-written, and lively,” and adds that by “deftly hitching ethnographic material to literature in anthropology, Latinx studies, science and technology studies, and Mexican studies and history, Beltrán has enlarged and enlivened the scope and direction of hacker studies.”

For his part, Beltrán says he hopes readers will undertand his book as a work that is not only about Mexico but distinctly international in scope, exploring how cultures evolve in relationship to each other, while meshed in a global economy. The issues raised in “Code Work” could apply to many countries, he believes.

These are topics Beltrán is also examining in an undergraduate class, “Hacking from the South,” which he is currently teaching.

“These are complex problems with a lot of moving parts,” Beltrán says. “It’s also very empowering for students themselves to make these connections.” Many students, he thinks, thrive when they have the opportunity to think across disciplines, and take those tools and perspectives out into the world.

“As an undergrad, I thought I was learning something at MIT in order to go out and get a job,” Beltrán says. “I wanted to come back to academia because it’s a place where we get to think deeply about the structures we’re entangled in, and question who we’re becoming and how to intervene in the world. Especially MIT students, who can potentially intervene by changing systems in a powerful way.”

Source: Writing code, and decoding the world

Kristala Prather named head of the Department of Chemical Engineering

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Kristala L. J. Prather ’94, the Arthur Dehon Little Professor, has been named the new head of the Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE), effective Jan. 1, 2024.

“Professor Prather has already demonstrated tremendous leadership in her role as executive officer in ChemE. Her contributions to the department, particularly in navigating challenges throughout the pandemic, have made a lasting impact,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “She is a talented scholar and a passionate educator. I look forward to working closely with her in this new leadership role.”

Prather joined MIT’s faculty in 2004. She studies the design of recombinant microorganisms for the production of small molecules. Her team at the Prather Research Group conducts research in three main areas: the design and assembly of novel pathways for biological synthesis; the enhancement of enzyme activity and control of metabolic flux; and bioprocess engineering and design.

Prather’s research seeks to address issues in climate and sustainability by reducing the need for fossil feedstocks for both energy and chemicals. She and her team design pathways to produce small molecules from renewable biomass rather than petroleum, and complement that work by developing novel approaches for improving productivity of biological systems. 

As executive officer in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Prather oversaw operations and policies related to teaching, space, and the Course 10 undergraduate program. She has organized teaching assignments, managed space needs for new faculty members, and chaired the Task Force on Undergraduate Curriculum Revitalization.

Several weeks after starting as executive officer in February 2020, Prather was faced with the challenge of helping the department navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. She led the department’s transition to remote learning by regularly communicating with faculty about changes in academic regulations, resources, and Zoom best practices. Prather also led an infrastructure team that guided the department during both the shutdown and ramp-up of research activities.

Prather has been an active member of several initiatives and programs across the Institute. She has served as a member of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (now MITES) Advisory Board, co-director of the Microbiology Graduate PhD Program, and co-director of the MIT Energy Initiative's Energy Bioscience Low-Carbon Energy Center. Last year, Prather was a member of the MIT Presidential Search Committee.

A dedicated educator, Prather has taught chemical engineering to students ranging from first-years undergraduate students to seasoned professionals. She is the lead instructor of Fermentation Technology, the longest-running course offered by MIT Professional Education. Prather’s commitment to teaching has been celebrated with a number of awards, including a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, MIT School of Engineering Junior Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, and Department of Chemical Engineering Outstanding Faculty Award for Undergraduate Teaching.

Prather has also received numerous awards for her research advances, including the AIChE's Andreas Acrivos Award for Professional Progress in Chemical Engineering, the Charles Thom Award of the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology, Biochemical Engineering Journal Young Investigator Award, and a Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant. She has been named a fellow of AAAS, AIChE, and AIMBE.

Prior to joining MIT, Prather spent four years working in bioprocess research and development at the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. She received her bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1994 and her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1999.

Prather succeeds Paula Hammond, MIT Institute Professor, who has led ChemE since 2015. Hammond was recently named vice provost of faculty at MIT.

“Throughout her eight years as department head, Professor Hammond’s contributions have been transformative for the department. She spearheaded a number of curriculum enhancements, emphasized collaboration, and has been a true champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” adds Chandrakasan.

Source: Kristala Prather named head of the Department of Chemical Engineering

Professor Emeritus Walter Hollister, an expert in flight instrumentation and guidance, dies at 92

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Walter M. Hollister ’53, MS ’59, PhD ’63, MIT professor emeritus in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), passed away Sept. 9 at age 92. 

A resident of Lincoln, Massachusetts, Hollister was originally from Rye, New York. As a high school student, he was passionate about athletics, earning five varsity letters in sports. He held two undergraduate college degrees: a BA from Middlebury College, followed by a BS, which he earned in 1953 from MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. At MIT, he continued his passion for sports, playing rugby and running track.

Following his MIT undergraduate days, Hollister went to work for Sperry Gyroscope at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, as an autopilot technical representative for Boeing’s B-47 Stratojet bomber. In 1954, Hollister joined the U.S. Navy, attending Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, followed by flight training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.

After serving as an attack jet pilot at Miramar Naval Air Station in California, Hollister returned to graduate school at MIT, earning master’s and doctorate degrees in 1959 and 1963, respectively, from the Department of AeroAstro. During that time, he was active in the Naval Air Force Reserve.

In 1960, Hollister met his future wife, Sally (Boston). They were married at her home near Oxford, England. While on their honeymoon, the Navy recalled him for a year of active duty. He was stationed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. His primary mission involved patrolling the Caribbean, taking aerial photos of Soviet ships bringing missiles to Cuba. His naval career eventually spanned 23 years, ultimately achieving the rank of captain, and including three years with an A-4 Skyhawk Jet Attack Squadron.

After Hollister completed his doctorate in 1963, he joined the AeroAstro faculty, where he taught for 40 years before retiring as professor emeritus. Over the course of his tenure he led AeroAstro’s Instrumentation, Guidance and Control PhD program, taught instrumentation and inertial guidance subjects, and was active in developing AeroAstro’s Unified Engineering course alongside Professor Ed Crawley and others. He collaborated extensively with Professor Bob Simpson and others in the Flight Transportation Laboratory, as well as numerous groups at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. 

“As a young faculty member he was a mentor and role model to many of us,” remembers senior lecturer Charles Oman SM ’68, PhD ’73. “He was very interested in aviation human factors and human-machine interfaces. In the late ’70s Walt had a clever idea how to measure the effects of recency among GA [general aviation] pilots, and got FAA funding for it. He and I collaborated on the modeling and stats. He and Art LaPointe leased a C150 at Hanscom, and acted as the in-flight evaluators. We concluded skill degrades faster than then thought — and we had great fun.”

Hollister authored and co-authored more than 75 technical papers, and co-authored the textbook “Gyroscopic Theory, Design, and Instrumentation” (MIT Press, 1972).

Hollister was teaching dynamics in the Unified Engineering course when Edward M. Greitzer, the H.N. Slater Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics, arrived on campus in 1977. “Walt was a pleasure to work with, helpful and worked to make things better for all,” says Greitzer, who taught Unified Dynamics after Hollister. 

Throughout his life, Hollister was passionate about flying. He was a flight instructor for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and continued flying light aircraft and gliders into retirement. His hobbies included running, bicycling, hiking, swimming, rollerblading, and skiing.

R. John Hansman, MIT's T. Wilson (1953) Professor in Aeronautics and International Center for Air Transportation director, says, “I was privileged to have Walt as my PhD advisor. He was an outstanding engineer, pilot, and teacher. He made significant contributions to improving the safety of aviation, and was a real down-to-earth advisor and mentor to MIT students, pilots, and astronauts.”

In addition to his wife Sally, Hollister is survived by his son, Mark Hollister of Wilmington, Massachusetts; daughter Heather Hollister of Somerville, Massachsetts; and son Hans Hollister and wife Olcan Hollister of Bethesda, Maryland. He is also survived by his sister, Jane (Hollister) Nicodemus of Warminster Pennsylvania; brothers-in-law Francis Boston of Montreal, Canada, and Simon Boston and Richard Boston of the U.K.; and grandchildren Dylan and Sophia Hollister.

Memorial contributions in Hollister’s name may be made to St. Anne's in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 6, Lincoln, MA 01773 or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37839, Boone, IA 50037.

Source: Professor Emeritus Walter Hollister, an expert in flight instrumentation and guidance, dies at 92

Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu Wins A.SK Social Science Award

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Daron Acemoglu, Institute Professor and the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics in MIT’s School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, is the 2023 recipient of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center’s A.SK Social Science Award, one of the most highly endowed international awards in the social sciences.

Acemoglu received the award for “his vastly influential work on, among others, the decisive role of institutions in capitalist economies, on the forces of states and societies which must negotiate a balance in order to ensure liberty, and on the uses and risks of automation.” 

In announcing the award, the international jury praised Acemoglu’s fundamental contributions to labor economics, macroeconomics, and political economy.

“As his research moves across both political science and economics, Daron Acemoglu has become a leading expert on the determinants of economic growth,” the international jury wrote.

"I am incredibly honored and humbled to have been selected as the recipient of the A.SK Social Science Award,” Acemoglu says. “The WZB has been unwavering in its support for and promotion of high-quality social science, and I consider myself lucky and privileged to have been included in their illustrious roster of previous recipients."

Acemoglu began teaching at MIT in 1993, and has been honored throughout his distinguished career for his work in macroeconomics, political economy, labor economics, development economics, and economic theory. Acemoglu co-leads the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Initiative, alongside MIT economists Professor David Autor and Professor Simon Johnson.

Earlier this year, Acemoglu published “Power and Progress: Our 1000-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity,” co-written with Simon Johnson. Acemoglu has warned of the potential social, economic, and political harm of allowing AI to go unregulated.

The A.SK Social Science award is endowed with 100,000 euros. Acemoglu will receive the award at a livestreamed ceremony in Berlin on Nov. 14.

Past recipients of the award include MIT economist Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics, and a co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), who received the honor in 2015.

Source: Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu Wins A.SK Social Science Award

Edward Crawley: A career of education, service, and exploration

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Arriving as an undergraduate in the 1970s, working through his master’s and doctoral degrees, and then becoming tenured faculty member, Professor Edward Crawley has spent his entire career at MIT.

Crawley ’76, MS ’78, ScD ’81, Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and head of the Systems Architecture group, joined the MIT faculty in 1984. His research focuses on the architecture, design, and decision support for complex technical systems. 

Over the summer, Crawley officially retired from his faculty position, after some 43 years as a professor.

During his time at MIT, Crawley not only published prolifically — with some 219 papers to his name — and taught and mentored countless students and colleagues. He also had a career of tremendous leadership and service: as department head of AeroAstro, as a member of advisory committees at NASA and the White House, as the founder of numerous companies, and as the head of several new MIT programs. Crawley also holds the NASA Public Service Medal, is a fellow of the AIAA and the Royal Aeronautical Society (U.K.) — and a member of five more science and engineering academies in the United States, China, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom — and is an active pilot.

"Ed Crawley reinvented our department, reinvented engineering education, and reinvented himself by leading completely different fields at different points in his career. He is one of few people in history who has changed how we view aerospace engineering and its role in the world,” says Professor Steven Barrett, interim department head of AeroAstro.

A focus on education

Crawley served as department head of AeroAstro from 1996 to 2003. The department’s current thematic research groupings of three sectors — computing, air, and space — grew largely from Crawley’s hiring and strategic plan. His love of teaching, and appreciation for the Institute’s focus on teaching, also informed his efforts as department head.

“I just love teaching. When I’d get up in the morning my wife could always tell the days I was teaching because I was so much more excited,” says Crawley. “We really value teaching as an important activity of the community. You see so much dedication to really improving and valuing education at MIT.” 

While serving as department head, Crawley helped to start the CDIO Initiative, an educational framework emphasizing engineering fundamentals set in the context of conceiving, designing, implementing, and operating real-world systems and products. The program has expanded to span 122 participating universities across 39 countries — encompassing more than 10,000 students and more than 600 faculty. In 2011 Crawley received the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education from the National Academy of Engineering, recognizing his “Leadership, creativity, and energy in defining and guiding the CDIO (Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate) Initiative, which has been widely adopted internationally for engineering education.”

Innovative programs with global reach

In addition to CDIO, Crawley has helped to launch and/or lead a number of important programs, serving as the executive director of the Bernard M. Gordon Engineering Leadership (GEL) Program and the Cambridge-MIT Institute, co-director of the Systems Design and Management Program (SDM), and co-founder and senior advisor of New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET).

“The particular type of engineering education I’ve become excited about in the last 20 years is the idea of project-based education,” says Crawley. “I think we owe it to our students to engage them, deeply and seriously, in challenging educational opportunities. And I think we do that really well at MIT.”

Crawley helped to launch GEL in 2007, with the goal of reintroducing themes of product development, teamwork, and leadership into the engineering curriculum. GEL now reaches 200-300 students each year, includes a graduate student program, and is now fully endowed.

The SDM program offers master’s and certificate programs to early- and mid-career professionals, aiming to educate future technical leaders by taking a holistic approach across disciplines. The program focuses on building students’ skills in the areas of system thinking, management, leadership, technical abilities, and big-picture thinking. 

Crawley co-founded NEET in an effort to re-imagine and rethink undergraduate engineering education, looking at both what and how students should learn. The program was built around the idea that students should be taught in the ways they most want to learn — engaging them and making them active collaborators in their learning. NEET scholars span a variety of majors and departments, working within different research offerings, or “threads,” including autonomous machines, climate and sustainability systems, digital cities, and living machines. Students choose, develop, and implement real-world, socially impactful projects. Launched in 2018, the NEET program now has more than 130 alumni.

Crawley says one of his proudest career accomplishments is helping to launch a new university. From 2011 to 2016 he took leave from MIT to serve as founding president of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), as part of a collaboration between MIT, Skoltech, and the Skolkovo Foundation. “Emotionally and intellectually, the idea of founding this university has to be at the top of my list,” Crawley says. “Most people don’t even think of founding a university as something that’s even possible — most of them have just been around. But all of them started somewhere.” MIT ended its involvement in the collaboration last year, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Reinventing retirement

Crawley’s time on campus actually extends back even before his undergrad studies, as he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“My dad used to bring me to the MIT campus to see interesting things,” he says. “There were summer programs and Saturday programs for local kids to come learn about matrices and coding and so forth — so I was routinely interacting with MIT from the time I was beginning high school.” Those early experiences stuck with him, and Crawley has always viewed MIT as a place to explore, to try new things and test out new ideas, and find communities of people who share that sense of curiosity and excitement. 

“I think we should encourage everyone in the MIT community to take advantage of the opportunities that we provide — to branch out and dig into different things.”

Apart from a sabbatical here and starting a new university there, MIT has been central to Crawley’s life for the past 50 years. Even now, he shows no signs of slowing down. At his retirement party, a common refrain from Crawley’s peers was, "You will never retire," and he admits he’s excited to put more time into new pursuits. 

“What retirement does is it gives me opportunities to work on things that I wouldn’t be able to do if I’d stayed on the faculty. In a way, I’m doing more!” He’s currently working on three startups with former students and advising on the creation of another new university, among other things.

“As one colleague of mine put it,” Crawley says, “Don’t think of it as retirement, think of it as endless sabbatical.” 

Source: Edward Crawley: A career of education, service, and exploration

Nathaniel Hendren wants to understand the conditions of opportunity

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The U.S. is a land of opportunity, but it’s a complicated thing. People in the workforce today are much less likely to earn more than their parents did, compared to people born around 1940. Some parts of the country generate much more economic mobility than others. And even with other matters being equal, there are still large differences in mobility among racial and ethnic groups.

Professor Nathaniel Hendren PhD ’12 has spent the last decade studying these matters. An economist who just joined the MIT faculty this summer, Hendren has co-authored a series of published papers with important empirical results shedding light on the conditions of opportunity in the U.S. today.

For instance, 92 percent of people born in 1940 earned more than their parents, but only 50 percent of those born in 1984 are doing so, with the middle class experiencing the biggest change. This is only modestly due to changes in the rate of GDP growth, the research shows, and is much more because of the way income inequality has grown, restricting middle-class gains.

Where people live affects their prospects, too. A child in the bottom quintile of the national income distribution growing up in San Jose, California, is about three times more likely to reach the top quintile than a bottom-quintile child in Charlotte, North Carolina. All of this interacts with race and ethnicity; even when accounting for levels of parental income, Black boys will have lower incomes in adulthood than white boys will in 99 percent of U.S. census tracts.

“It opens up a lot of questions about what historical [issues and] policies have done, and how they led to low income mobility today,” Hendren says. “It is a landscape that is affected by our institutions and policies.”

And by our places. Hendren’s research has shown there is a neighborhood-level impact on economic outcomes, one that corresponds to the number of years children live in a particular place.

“We are sort of a weighted average of the neighborhoods we grew up in,” Hendren says.

To be sure, many policies aim to provide better opportunities for people. In another area of his research, Hendren has developed new tools for comparing the usefulness of programs, while serving as founder and co-director of Policy Impacts, a nonpartisan group supporting evidence-based policymaking.

“Historically, over the last 50 years, the policies that provide the biggest returns are those that make direct investments in kids, especially low-income kids,” Hendren says. “It’s not necessarily cash transfers to their parents or things that might spill over. It’s investments in their schools, their health, direct investments in those kids.”

Off to the races

Hendren’s arrival in the faculty ranks at MIT represents an intellectual homecoming, given that he earned his PhD at the Institute. His interest in the field began to flower as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, though, where he double-majored in math and economics.

“I always liked that you can be formal about describing social interactions or human behavior with math, and that the precision of math disciplined the theories that you have and the statements you can make,” Hendren says.

After joining the doctoral program at MIT, Hendren worked with Daron Acemoglu and Amy Finkelstein as his primary advisors, producing a thesis with research on insurance markets.

“I came here and just never looked back. I found I enjoyed doing research, and it was off to the races at that point,” Hendren says.

Hendren has been producing notable research at racing speed ever since. As a newly minted Institute PhD in 2012, Hendren joined the faculty at Harvard University and soon started focusing on matters of opportunity and social mobility. Working with a series of co-authors, including Raj Chetty, Lawrence Katz, and Emmanuel Saez, he has published over two dozen papers in major journals.

Hendren has also co-authored some papers with Finkelstein on the impact of health insurance programs, and he sometimes studies market failure issues. But much of his work has centered directly on social mobility, including research designed to test individual policy ideas.

In one 2016 paper, Chetty, Hendren, and Katz examined the Moving to Opportunity program, which gives poor families vouchers to help with housing in lower-poverty neighborhoods, and found that children in families participating in the program eventually realized 31-percent gains in income as adults.

In a related paper, forthcoming in the American Economic Review, Chetty, Hendren, Katz, MIT economist Christopher Palmer, and additional co-authors ran an experiment with a housing voucher program in the Seattle area. By supplying low-income families with a “navigator” who provided some of the services of a real estate agent and financial advisor, participants’ use of the vouchers increased from 15 percent to 53 percent.

“We found remarkably large effects when you provide people with these navigators,” Hendren notes. “It’s a pretty low-touch intervention for such a large life change.”

That kind of result, Hendren notes, “rules out this story about how [housing] segregation is driven by the preferences of the segregated. I think it’s driven by the constraints imposed on them by institutions, and people [altering] the rules of the game.” He adds: “Our results suggest that a lot of people want to live in neighborhoods that promote higher upward mobility for their kids, and are willing to make tradeoffs to do that.”

Measuring what works

Historically, Hendren notes, residential segregation has been embedded in sweeping currents in American life; even when millions of Black families left the segregated Jim Crow South during the so-called Great Migration in the mid-20th century, their arrival in northern cities caused extensive “white flight” from cities to suburbs. Individual programs like Moving to Opportunity can work, but there are large-scale hurdles to creating sustainably diverse communities that enourage social mobility.

“Our results suggest we create places with high upward mobility, but they are enclaves with barriers that prevent [many] people from accessing those places,” Hendren says.

And yet, given that governments have created a wide array of measures designed to encourage education, economic advancement, public health, a cleaner environment, and many other things that can influence social outcomes, Hendren in recent years has been working to redefine the bottom-line measurement of those programs.

“We’re trying to create coherent, consistent measures of what a policy does,” Hendren says. Studies across topics from education to the environment to public health use differing metrics to evaluate policies, but Hendren and economist Ben Sprung-Keyser have worked to align them in a common framework,  developing a metric they call “the marginal value of public funds” and applying it to 133 different types of government policies.  

“It’s really a simple metric,” Hendren says. “For every dollar the government spends on a policy on net, how much benefit does the policy provide to its beneficiaries in dollar terms?”

This is the research showing that spending on lower-income children provides the biggest additional return per dollar spent. Which is not to say that other programs are not worthy. But policymakers can use this kind of analysis in allocating their budgets.

To be sure, even clearly effective policy ideas can struggle to make it through any given legislative chamber. Still, Hendren notes, it is valuable to have the solid, firm facts and opportunity, mobility, and policy on hand for everyone to use.

“Politics is sticky and messy,” Hendren says. “My view of social change and politics is maybe a little rosy and optimistic, but if I don’t have that view, I won’t stay motivated. If we can measure the tradeoffs that we think are true, based on our best estimates, and shine a light on the implicit preferences that a politician has to support one policy over another, then I think we can make a little bit of progress.”

Source: Nathaniel Hendren wants to understand the conditions of opportunity

One of MIT’s “best-kept secrets” offers an outlet for creative writing

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They gather every Monday at noon from disparate corners of MIT. The group includes faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, alumni, and even spouses. Their discussions revolve around mythical dystopias, half-remembered dreams, and gripping personal dramas.

An outsider overhearing fragments of conversation might not know what to make of the eclectic group. Given MIT’s reputation for improbable innovations, they might guess the participants are scientists and engineers dreaming up some unrecognizable, far-flung future. In fact, they belong to the MIT Writers’ Group, which offers community members a way to channel their creative energies across a variety of writing formats.

Creative writing might not be the first thing people think of when they think of MIT, but the group has shown remarkable staying power since its inception back in 2002. The group’s size has ebbed and flowed over the years, but its general process has remained the same. When providing a writer feedback, members are always supportive first. They note the strengths in their colleague’s work, then give constructive feedback, often in the form of questions.

The approach has helped a lot of writers over the years. It is the brainchild of former MIT lecturer of writing and rhetoric Steven Strang, who has helmed the group since its inception.

“We try to be an encouraging group,” says Strang, who retired from MIT in 2021 after more than 40 years at MIT. “We’re not here to score points on other writers; we’re here to give advice and help. It’s mostly reactions: This really worked for me, this didn’t work for me and here’s why.”

In some instances, the writing serves as an outlet for community members engrossed in scientific work the rest of the day. In others, community members have incorporated science and engineering concepts into their work.

When I started coming to Writers’ Group, I was astonished that MIT has this,” says Anne Hudson, who’s been a member on and off since 2002 and worked at MIT as an administrative assistant for many years. “People may not come to MIT to write a novel, but MIT has wonderful resources. I think of Writers’ Group and the literature that goes on here as some of MIT’s best kept secrets.”

Giving MIT’s community a place to write

Strang became a lecturer at MIT in 1980 in the Department of Comparative Media Studies/Writing. In 1981 he founded the MIT Writing and Communications Center (WCC). The WCC is open to students, faculty, staff, and spouses who want help with their professional writing and oral presentation skills. Over the years Strang has won a Levitan Teaching Prize for outstanding success in teaching as well as an MIT Infinite Mile Award and an MIT Excellence Award for “Going Above and Beyond.”

In 2002, Strang decided to host a creative writing workshop over MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) for nonprofessional writing. About 70 people showed up.

“At the end of IAP, everybody wanted to keep going, so we kept going and we never stopped,” Strang explains.

The meeting format has held ever since. A few days before each meeting, the presenting writer for that week will send other members their work. To start the meeting, the writer reads an excerpt from the work aloud, sometimes telling the group what kind of feedback they’re looking for. Then reactions come in.

“It sounds sort of simple, but it’s specific and extremely helpful,” says Rosemary Booth, whose husband worked at MIT. “It identifies where the problems are and boosts my confidence that I can fix those problems.”

Other members who have benefited from the format try to return the favor.

“I’m a published science fiction author and the group has really helped me,” says Janet Johnston, a senior export control officer in the MIT Research Compliance Office. “I figure since I’ve gotten so much out of the group, I should try to give back to the community. MIT isn’t just a job; it really is a community.”

Group members have written in just about every genre you can think of, including short stories, book reviews, poetry, creative nonfiction essays, autobiographies, and plays. Members have gotten a number of things published, including short stories, book reviews, and poetry.

“It’s gratifying [when someone gets published,]” Strang says. “I’ve taught creative writing for 51 years, and it’s great if you get published, but the basic reason for doing creative writing is to learn about yourself. No matter what you’re writing about, you’re delving more deeply into your ideas and yourself.”

Of course, because it’s MIT, science fiction is a well-represented genre in the group. But regardless of the genre or writing style, most members stick to writing about people — about friendship, love, betrayal, loss, and all the other juicy details of life.

The diversity in writing reflects the diversity of the group.

“We have people from a variety of backgrounds,” Johnston says. “People from other countries, who bring their own perspective not only to what they write, but to your work as well.”

The writing serves as a form of expression for members, but also as a form of introspection.

“I think self-exploration is the most important thing for writers,” Strang says. “If you’ve got a problem that bothers you, or a situation you’re not sure what to make of, and it keeps gnawing at you, you should write about it. If you have someone you’re having trouble connecting to, write about it. It really does help you understand things.”

Sticking with it

Well into its second decade of meeting, the Writers’ Group faced its biggest challenge yet when the Covid-19 pandemic closed campus, forcing the group to go virtual.

“The pandemic was really a jolt,” Booth says. “We had been gathering in classroom circles for so long. We wondered what it would be like on Zoom. But Steve managed it. He used the same format, and the process held.”

Many members have been with the group for several years; some have been attending for more than a decade.

It’s endured because people are actually getting something out of it,” Hudson says. “People tend to come for long periods of time. Being in this group of talented people is an affirmation of yourself as a writer.”

Johnston, who’s been with the group since 2016, explains the group’s staying power more simply: “When you find something this positive and useful, you stick with it.”

To learn more about the group or to join, email Steven at

Source: One of MIT’s “best-kept secrets” offers an outlet for creative writing

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