The power of knowledge

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In his early career at MIT, Josh Kuffour’s academic interests spanned mathematics, engineering, and physics. He decided to major in chemical engineering, figuring it would draw on all three areas. Then, he found himself increasingly interested in the mathematical components of his studies and added a second major, applied mathematics.

Now, with a double major and energy studies minor, Kuffour is still seeking to learn even more. He has made it a goal to take classes from as many different departments as he can before he graduates. So far, he has taken classes from 17 different departments, ranging from Civil and Environmental Engineering to Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences to Linguistics and Philosophy.

“It’s taught me about valuing different ways of thinking,” he says about this wide-ranging approach to the course catalog. “It’s also taught me to value blending disciplines as a whole. Learning about how other people think about the same problems from different perspectives allows for better solutions to be developed.”

After graduation, Kuffour plans to pursue a master’s degree at MIT, either in the Technology and Policy Program or in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He intends to make renewable energy, and its role in addressing societal inequalities, the focus of his career after graduating, and eventually plans to become a teacher.

Serving the public

Recognizing the power of knowledge, Kuffour says he enjoys helping to educate others “in any way I can.” He is involved with several extracurriculars in which he can be a mentor for both peers and high school students.

Kuffour has volunteered with the Educational Studies Program since his first semester at MIT. This club runs Splash, “a weekend-long learning extravaganza,” as Kuffour puts it, in which MIT students teach over 400 free classes on a huge variety of topics for local high school students.

For his peers, Kuffour also participates in the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program (GEL). Here, he teaches first-year GEL students leadership skills that engineers may require in their future careers. In doing this, Kuffour says he develops his own leadership skills as well. He is also working as a teaching assistant for multivariable calculus this semester.

Kuffour has also served as an advisor for the Concourse learning community; as president of his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi; as a student representative on the HASS requirement subcommittee; and as a publicist for the Reason for God series, which invites the MIT community to discuss the intersections of religion with various facets of human life.

Renewable energy

Kuffour’s interest in energy issues has grown and evolved in recent years. He first learned about the ecological condition of the world in the eighth grade after watching the climate change documentary “Earth 2100” in school. Going into high school and college, Kuffour says he started reading books, taking classes, watching documentaries, participating in beach and city clean ups, to learn as much as possible about the environment and      global warming.

During the summer of 2023, Kuffour worked as an energy and climate analysis intern for the consulting company Keylogic and has continued helping the company shift programming languages to Python for evaluating the economics of different methods of decarbonizing electricity sectors in the U.S. He has also assisted in analyzing trends in U.S. natural gas imports, exports, production, and consumption since the early 2000s.            

In his time as an undergraduate, Kuffour’s interest in renewable energy has taken on a more justice-focused perspective. He’s learned over the course of his that due to historical inequalities in the U.S., pollution and other environmental problems have disproportionately impacted people of lower economic status and people of color. Since global warming will exacerbate these impacts, Kuffour seeks to address these growing inequalities through his work in energy data analysis.        

Translating interests into activity

Kuffour’s pursuit to expand his worldview never rests, even outside of the classroom. In his free time, he enjoys listening to podcasts or watching documentaries on any subject. When attempting to list all his favorite podcasts, he cuts himself off, saying, “This could go on for a while.”

In 2022, Kuffour participated on a whim with a group of friends in an American Institute of Chemical Engineers competition, where he was tasked with creating a 1-by-1 foot cube that could filter water to specifications provided by the competition. He says it was fun to apply what he was learning at MIT to a project all the way in Arizona. 

Kuffour enjoys discovering new things with friends as much as on his own. Three years ago, he started an intramural soccer team with friends from the Interphase EDGE program, which attracted many people he had never interacted with before. The team has been playing nearly every week since and Kuffour says the experience has been, “very enriching.”

Kuffour hopes other students will also seek out knowledge and experiences from a wide range of sources during their undergraduate years. He offers: “Try as many things as possible even if you think you know what you want to do, and appreciate everything life has to offer.”

Source: The power of knowledge

Bringing the environment to the forefront of engineering

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In a recent podcast interview with MIT President Sally Kornbluth, Associate Professor Desirée Plata described her childhood pastime of roaming the backyards and businesses of her grandmother’s hometown of Gray, Maine. Through her wanderings, Plata noticed a disturbing pattern.

“I was 7 or 8 when I caught wind of all the illness,” Plata recalls. “It seemed like in every other house there was somebody who had a neurological disorder or a cancer of some sort.”

While driving home one night with her mom, Plata made her first environmental hypothesis from the back seat. “I told my mom, ‘I think there’s something in the water or air where these people live.’”

The conversation happened in the late 1980s. Plata was a little older when she learned her intuition was correct: The Environmental Protection Agency determined that a waste disposal facility had contaminated drinking water in the area while processing more than 1 million gallons of waste between 1965 and 1978.

“There was a New York Times article on it, but it was sort of buried in a Sunday paper and a lot of folks up in Maine didn’t hear about it,” Plata says.

What most struck Plata was that Gray was a tight-knit community, and the people who owned the waste disposal facility were friends with everybody. Eventually, some of the owner’s children even got sick.

“People don’t poison their neighbors on purpose,” Plata says. “A lot of industrial contamination happens either by accident or because the engineers don’t know better. As an environmental scientist and engineer, it’s part of my job to help industrial engineers of any variety design their systems and processes such that they are thinking about what’s going into the environment from the start.”

The insight led Plata to MIT, first as a PhD student, then as a visiting professor, and today as the newly tenured associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

These days Plata’s work is a bit more complex than her early backseat musings. In fact, her efforts extend far beyond research and include mentoring students, entrepreneurship, coalition-building, and coordination across industry, academia, and government. But the work can still be traced back to the childhood insight that environmental optimization needs to be a more tangible and important part of everyone’s thinking.

“People think sustainability is this nebulous thing they can’t get their hands around,” Plata says. “But there are actually a set of rigorous principles you can use, and each one of those has a metric or a thing you can measure to go with it. MIT is such an innovative place. If we can incorporate environmental objectives into design at a place like MIT, the hope is the world can engage as well.”

Taking the plunge

Plata was first introduced to environmental research in high school, but it wasn’t until she attended Union College and got to work in a research lab that she knew it was what she’d do for the rest of her life.

After graduating from Union, Plata decided to skip a master’s degree and “take the plunge” into the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) joint doctoral program.

“Talk about drinking from a firehose,” Plata says. “Everybody you bump into knows something that can help you solve the very hard problem you’re working on.”

Plata began the program studying oil spills, and a paper she co-authored helped spur a law that changed the way oil is transported off the coast of Massachusetts. But developments in her personal life made her want to prevent environmental disasters before they happen.

In her last year at Union, Plata’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer — a disease that’s been linked to one of the chemicals dumped in Gray, Maine. While Plata was at MIT, her aunt was receiving treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital down the road, so Plata would work at the lab at night, stay with her aunt during treatments all day, and go home with her on the weekends.

“As I’m sampling oil, I’m recognizing that nothing I’m doing is going to help women like her escape the illness,” Plata recalls.

In her third year of the MIT-WHOI program, Plata shifted her research to explore how industrial emissions generated during the creation of materials known as carbon nanotubes could inform how those valuable new materials were forming. The work led to a dramatically more sustainable way to make the materials, which are needed for important environmental applications themselves.

After earning her PhD, Plata served as a visiting professor at MIT for two years before working in faculty positions at Duke University and Yale University, where she studied green chemistry and green optimization. She returned to MIT as an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering in 2018.

Working beyond academia

While at Yale, Plata started a company, Nth Cycle, which uses electric currents to extract critical minerals like cobalt and nickel from lithium-ion batteries and other electronic waste. The company began commercial production last year.

Plata also works extensively with government and industry, serving on a Massachusetts committee that published a roadmap to decarbonizing the state by 2050 and advising companies both formally and informally. (She estimates she gets a call every two weeks from a new company working on a sustainability problem.)

“It’s undeniable that industry has an enormous impact on the environment,” Plata says. “Some like to think the government can wave a magic wand and make some regulation and we won’t be in this situation, but that’s not the case. There are technical challenges that need to be solved and businesses play an incredibly important role as agents of change.”

Plata’s research at MIT, meanwhile, is focused increasingly on methane. Last year she helped create the MIT Methane Network, which she directs.

Plata’s research has explored ways to convert methane into less harmful carbon dioxide and other fuels in places like dairy farms and coal plants. This past summer she took a team of students to dairy barns to conduct field tests.

“If you could take methane from coal mining out of the air globally, it’s equivalent to taking all of the combustion engine vehicles off the road, even accounting for the small generation of CO2 that we have [as the result of our process],” Plata says. “If you can fix the problem at dairy farms, it’s like all the combustion engine vehicle emissions times three. It’s a hugely impactful number.”

Taking action

When Plata was in fourth grade, her teacher had students pick up trash around a nearby bay. She’s since done the exercise with other fourth graders.

“You ask them what they think they’ll find, and they say, ‘Nothing. I didn’t see any trash on the way to school today,’ but when you ask them to look, everybody fills their bag by the end of the trip, and you start to realize how much fugitive emissions of waste exists, and then you start to start thinking about all of the chemical contamination that you can’t see,” Plata says.

One of Plata’s chief research goals can be summed up with that exercise: getting people to appreciate the importance of environmental criteria and motivating them to take action.

“Today, I see people looking for these silver bullet solutions to solve environmental problems,” Plata says. “That’s not how we got into this mess, and it’s not how we’re going to get out of it. The problem is really distributed, so what we really need is the sum of a lot of small actions to change the system.”

Source: Bringing the environment to the forefront of engineering

Analyzing pathways to persuasion

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As political conversations shift online, Chloe Wittenberg PhD ’23 is learning how the information Americans consume shapes their attitudes and beliefs. An MIT postdoc in political science who recently earned her doctorate at the Institute, Wittenberg is interested in comparing the persuasive powers of video-based political content to text-based content. As Americans increasingly turn to social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok for their news, her work takes on greater urgency.

“The American political system is founded on the notion of an informed, engaged public, so we should strive to understand both what citizens think and how they come to these conclusions,” says Wittenberg.

Through original surveys and experiments, Wittenberg explores what kinds of political content Americans find arresting — and convincing. “As information systems continue to change and evolve, it is increasingly important for political scientists to take stock of the impacts of different forms of political content on public opinion,” she says.

Data tell the story

Wittenberg came to MIT in 2017, she says, to train in “rigorous and cutting-edge methods” that would help her trace the role of the media in shaping political views. She found her research home in the MIT Political Experiments Research Lab, directed by Adam J. Berinsky, professor of political science.

“Political beliefs and opinions are the product of complex, social processes,” she says. “Survey and experimental methods can help us dig deeper into these processes to extract new and actionable insights.”

In the face of rising misinformation and political polarization, Wittenberg wanted to know “where political beliefs come from in the first place.” She found social science answers that pointed to “features of the content itself, such as its topic, slant, or framing” plausible, but incomplete. This prompted her to consider not just what media individuals were consuming — but also how they were consuming this information.

As she began pursuing these questions, Wittenberg became interested in a growing phenomenon: deepfakes, synthetic videos that blur the line between truth and fiction. A popular consensus was rapidly emerging that deepfakes “posed a new, unprecedented threat, because the technology could be uniquely capable of shaping people’s attitudes and beliefs,” she says. But that assumed that video itself was inherently powerful, capable of greater persuasion than other forms of information, such as text. Was it really? Wittenberg had found her dissertation topic.

Immersive versus persuasive

Through a series of projects, Wittenberg began testing widespread assumptions about video’s singular sway as a channel for political persuasion. In conducting this work, she closely collaborated with Berinsky, as well as colleagues outside of political science such as David G. Rand, the Erwin H. Schell Professor and Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Ben M. Tappin, a research affiliate at Rand’s Human Cooperation Lab and an Early Career Fellow at the Leverhulme Trust.

Her first project, done in partnership with Berinsky, Rand, and Tappin, investigated the effects of presenting political information in the form of either the original video or a text-based transcript of the video. Across two complementary survey experiments involving more than 7,500 Americans, Wittenberg and her co-authors examined responses to nearly 75 professionally produced political advertisements and online news videos, spanning such topics as climate change, gun control, income inequality, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Their analysis revealed that respondents perceived videos as much more credible than text, but were only slightly more likely to change their attitudes and behavior in response to these videos.

“Just because video seems more credible than text doesn’t mean it’s more persuasive,” says Wittenberg. “Seeing may be believing, but it does not necessarily change people’s minds.”

Her next stop was determining whether the changes in attitude effected by both video and text persisted over time. In a two-part experiment with over 2,000 Americans, Wittenberg found that political video and text messaging functioned equally well in shifting respondents’ policy opinions — both immediately and several days later. “Although the effects of video and text both eroded slightly over time, there were virtually no differences between these two types of media in either part of the study,” she says. “This upends the assumption that video makes people more receptive to political information in both the short and long term.”

Drawing a bead on belief

Wittenberg has long been curious about how people come to hold strong attitudes about political issues. During her undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, coursework in political science and psychology, she says, “opened my eyes to a whole new way of understanding political belief systems.”

While at Swarthmore, she participated in an interdisciplinary program devoted to understanding the roots of peace and conflict through a political, psychological, social, and cultural lens. Her thesis looked at how people form opinions about conflicts abroad and examined the role of media in shaping those opinions. To do so, she combined laboratory experiments with in-depth text analysis to help her probe the connections between media narratives and public opinion.

“Through this work, I realized that I really enjoyed the process of puzzling through complex theoretical questions,” she says. “It also reinforced to me the importance of multidisciplinary approaches to social science research, which I have continued to use during my time at MIT.”

After three years working as a research analyst at the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she honed her survey design and analysis skills, Wittenberg decided to return to an academic setting “to advance her knowledge of best practices in public opinion research.”

The persuasive advantage

In the final phase of her dissertation, which she defended last summer, Wittenberg shifted focus. Rather than weighing the power of video versus text in altering people’s political attitudes, she investigated the possibility “that video’s persuasive advantage” might lie in its unrivaled capacity to capture and hold attention. In initial studies, she finds that individuals are indeed captivated by and highly likely to engage with political videos — but continue to find conventional political media, such as news articles, compelling.

Wittenberg, who continues her work as a postdoc in the Department of Political Science, believes that a nuanced understanding of public responses to different forms of political messaging could help inform debates about optimal strategies for political persuasion. “My research has clear, practical implications for campaigns and advocacy groups seeking to sway public support on political topics,” she says. However, she believes her work can also provide more general insights about the role of social media in American politics. “There are a lot of different directions to go with this research, which is exciting.”

Source: Analyzing pathways to persuasion

Printing a new approach to fusion power plant materials

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When Alexander O’Brien sent in his application for graduate school at MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, he had a germ of a research idea already brewing. So when he received a phone call from Professor Mingda Li, he shared it: The student from Arkansas wanted to explore the design of materials that could hold nuclear reactors together.

Li listened to him patiently and then said, “I think you’d be a really good fit for Professor Ju Li,” O’Brien remembers. Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor in Nuclear Engineering, had wanted to explore 3D printing for nuclear reactors and O’Brien seemed like the right candidate. “At that moment I decided to go to MIT if they accepted me,” O’Brien remembers.

And they did.

Under the advisement of Ju Li, the fourth-year doctoral student now explores 3D printing of ceramic-metal composites, materials that can be used to construct fusion power plants.

An early interest in the sciences

Growing up in Springdale, Arkansas as a self-described “band nerd,” O’Brien was particularly interested in chemistry and physics. It was one thing to mix baking soda and vinegar to make a “volcano” and quite another to understand why that was happening. “I just enjoyed understanding things on a deeper level and being able to figure out how the world works,” he says.

At the same time, it was difficult to ignore the economics of energy playing out in his own backyard. When Arkansas, a place that had hardly ever seen earthquakes, started registering them in the wake of fracking in neighboring Oklahoma, it was “like a lightbulb moment” for O’Brien. “I knew this was going to create problems down the line, I knew there’s got to be a better way to do [energy],” he says.

With the idea of energy alternatives simmering on the back burner, O’Brien enrolled for undergraduate studies at the University of Arkansas. He participated in the school’s marching band — “you show up a week before everyone else and there’s 400 people who automatically become your friends” — and enjoyed the social environment that a large state school could offer.

O’Brien double-majored in chemical engineering and physics and appreciated “the ability to get your hands dirty on machinery to make things work.” Deciding to begin exploring his interest in energy alternatives, O’Brien researched transition metal dichalcogenides, coatings of which could catalyze the hydrogen evolution reaction and more easily create hydrogen gas, a green energy alternative.

It was shortly after his sophomore year, however, that O’Brien really found his way in the field of energy alternatives — in nuclear engineering. The American Chemical Society was soliciting student applications for summer study of nuclear chemistry in San Jose, California. O’Brien applied and got accepted. “After years of knowing I wanted to work in green energy but not knowing what that looked like, I very quickly fell in love with [nuclear engineering],” he says. That summer also cemented O’Brien’s decision to attend graduate school. “I came away with this idea of ‘I need to go to grad school because I need to know more about this,’” he says.

O’Brien especially appreciated an independent project, assigned as part of the summer program: He chose to research nuclear-powered spacecraft. In digging deeper, O’Brien discovered the challenges of powering spacecraft — nuclear was the most viable alternative, but it had to work around extraneous radiation sources in space. Getting to explore national laboratories near San Jose sealed the deal. “I got to visit the National Ignition Facility, which is the big fusion center up there, and just seeing that massive facility entirely designed around this one idea of fusion was kind of mind-blowing to me,” O’Brien says.

A fresh blueprint for fusion power plants

O’Brien’s current research at MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) is equally mind-blowing.

As the design of new fusion devices kicks into gear, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the materials we have been using just don’t hold up to the higher temperatures and radiation levels in operating environments, O’Brien says. Additive manufacturing, another term for 3D printing, “opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for what you can do with metals, which is exactly what you’re going to need [to build the next generation of fusion power plants],” he says.

Metals and ceramics by themselves might not do the job of withstanding high temperatures (750 degrees Celsius is the target) and stresses and radiation, but together they might get there. Although such metal matrix composites have been around for decades, they have been impractical for use in reactors because they’re “difficult to make with any kind of uniformity and really limited in size scale,” O’Brien says. That’s because when you try to place ceramic nanoparticles into a pool of molten metal, they’re going to fall out in whichever direction they want. “3D printing quickly changes that story entirely, to the point where if you want to add these nanoparticles in very specific regions, you have the capability to do that,” O’Brien says.

O’Brien’s work, which forms the basis of his doctoral thesis and a research paper in the journal Additive Manufacturing, involves implanting metals with ceramic nanoparticles. The net result is a metal matrix composite that is an ideal candidate for fusion devices, especially for the vacuum vessel component, which must be able to withstand high temperatures, extremely corrosive molten salts, and internal helium gas from nuclear transmutation.

O’Brien’s work focuses on nickel superalloys like Inconel 718, which are especially robust candidates because they can withstand higher operating temperatures while retaining strength. Helium embrittlement, where bubbles of helium caused by fusion neutrons lead to weakness and failure, is a problem with Inconel 718, but composites exhibit potential to overcome this challenge.

To create the composites, first a mechanical milling process coats the ceramic onto the metal particles. The ceramic nanoparticles act as reinforcing strength agents, especially at high temperatures, and make materials last longer. The nanoparticles also absorb helium and radiation defects when uniformly dispersed, which prevent these damage agents from all getting to the grain boundaries.

The composite then goes through a 3D printing process called powder bed fusion (non-nuclear fusion), where a laser passes over a bed of this powder melting it into desired shapes. “By coating these particles with the ceramic and then only melting very specific regions, we keep the ceramics in the areas that we want, and then you can build up and have a uniform structure,” O’Brien says.

Printing an exciting future

The 3D printing of nuclear materials exhibits such promise that O’Brien is looking at pursuing the prospect after his doctoral studies. “The concept of these metal matrix composites and how they can enhance material property is really interesting,” he says. Scaling it up commercially through a startup company is on his radar.

For now, O’Brien is enjoying research and catching an occasional Broadway show with his wife. While the band nerd doesn’t pick up his saxophone much anymore, he does enjoy driving up to New Hampshire and going backpacking. “That’s my newfound hobby,” O’Brien says, “since I started grad school.”

Source: Printing a new approach to fusion power plant materials

Retraining the brain for better vision

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Hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffer from a vision condition called amblyopia, or lazy eye, with imbalanced vision in their two eyes. Unless this disabling condition is caught and treated at a young age, it's rare for children to regain full vision, because the brain learns to turn off the input from the “lazy” eye.

Amblyopia is one striking example of how the brain is modified by experience, says Professor Mark Bear, a neuroscientist at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. His research focuses on this phenomenon of brain plasticity, with particular attention to the synapses that connect neurons in the brain.

Bear's studies have led to a potential treatment for amblyopia that works by temporarily anesthetizing the “good” eye. After successful experiments in smaller animals, the method is being tested in non-human primates, and Bear and his partners hope to move ahead into clinical trials.

Wiring up our vision

“Consider the challenge of seeing one world through two eyes,” Bear suggests. To avoid seeing double, information from the two retinas must be mapped with extreme precision onto common targets in the brain. But we're not born with this ability; it depends on high-quality visual experience during infancy and early childhood.

This need for the brain to learn to see fully was demonstrated decades ago, in experiments with young animals with a patch placed over one eye. When the patch was removed, researchers discovered a severe visual impairment through the eye that had been patched. “The retina was fine,” he says. “The problem was that it had been mis-wired in the brain, so that these connections didn't mature normally.”

The finding raised fascinating scientific questions, Bear says. How have the brain's synaptic connections been modified? What triggers these modifications? And how might those connections recover?

“Today we can trace the whole path that goes from poor-quality visual experience to poor quality-of-vision and visual impairment in the brain,” he says. Research has demonstrated that the condition is triggered by replacing well-correlated activity in the retinas with retinal noise. “That type of activity weakly activates a particular neurotransmitter receptor in the brain called an NMDA receptor, which triggers the modification of synapses that causes those synapses to get weaker,” he says.

These findings have practical implications for the vast number of children born with amblyopia, usually due to one of three causes. Their eyes may be cross-eyed, or they may be born with a cataract in one eye, or the two eyes refract (focus) differently so that they only view the world crisply through one eye or the other. All of these mishaps disrupt the wiring of the brain, resulting in poor visual acuity in one eye and loss of binocular vision, says Bear.

The current medical treatment is simply to put a patch over the good eye, to try to force relearning of vision through the weak eye. This procedure can work but is rarely completely successful. And it must begin early — in the first year for children with cataracts, perhaps at the age of 7 or 8 years for less severe causes of the condition.

Amblyopia is particularly devastating for people who later lose use of their good eye. But in a surprising number of cases, the amblyopic eye then does recover some vision, even in adults. “That means there is plasticity in the adult brain, which is good,” Bear says.

So what drives this recovery, when patching the good eye doesn't work? Bear and his colleagues hypothesized that patches don't work because the retina remains very active in the dark behind the patch.

“To test our hypothesis, you would like to completely inactivate the retina,” he says. His team did just that by injecting a long-lasting anesthetic called tetrodotoxin (TTX) directly into the eye of lab animals that model severe amblyopia.

“We see, quite remarkably, a very dramatic and surprisingly rapid recovery of vision to the amblyopic eye,” says Bear. “It can be complete recovery of vision. And when the TTX wears off, the good eye comes bounding right back, so we're able to reverse amblyopia in adult animals.”

Bear and his collaborators are beginning experiments in non-human primates, where the procedure seems to be safe, but they don't yet have results on how effective the method is.

He's also working with clinician scientists “who see patients with amblyopia and understand the toll that it takes on these patients and their families,” he says. And he's begun early conversations with potential commercial partners to support a move into clinical studies.

Figuring Fragile X syndrome

Another major effort in Bear's lab focuses on understanding Fragile X syndrome. This is a genetic disorder caused by the deletion of a single gene and the most common heritable form of intellectual disability and autism.

Two decades ago, his lab made an important discovery about the protein product of that lost single gene, which “put Fragile X on the map as a potentially interesting disease area for treatments,” he says.

The discovery led to a round of clinical trials that proved disappointing, but the Bear lab is among many around the world further investigating Fragile X biology and coming up with promising new approaches to treat the condition.

The Holy Grail for these efforts would be a way to re-express the protein that has gone missing, but other treatments also might eventually ameliorate various effects of Fragile X syndrome. “We won’t reverse the effects of growing up with Fragile X in an adult, but we should be able to greatly improve the quality of life for those affected by the disease,” he says.

Bringing MIT brainpower to the brain

The Picower Institute, one major group in MIT's world-leading Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, “is a wonderful place to do science,” Bear says. “It is an embarrassment of riches. My heart rate goes up every time I arrive on campus, just thinking about what's going on around me. It's almost frustrating, like going to an ice cream shop with 100 different flavors of ice cream. There's so much going on; I have to choose wisely.”

Bear hopes that deepening understanding of brain plasticity in his lab and others around the globe will pay off in the not-too-distant future for patients with disabling conditions such as amblyopia and Fragile X syndrome.

“Basic scientists take satisfaction in doing basic science,” he adds. “If there was never an application of my work, I would still die a happy man. But there would be nothing sweeter than to have something we discovered in the lab lead to some improvement in the human condition.”

Source: Retraining the brain for better vision

Improving accessibility of online graphics for blind users

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Improving accessibility of online graphics for blind users

Finding solidarity in the teachers’ lounge

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In the United States, social institutions from church organizations to sports leagues occupy key roles in shaping political life, with unions perhaps the most familiar player, affecting change in realms from protest movements to elections.   

But while these civil society institutions draw little notice in a democracy, they turn heads in settings where political life is more constrained.     

Elizabeth “Biff” Parker-Magyar, a sixth-year doctoral student in political science at MIT, is investigating this phenomenon.  

“It’s quite puzzling when some organizations manage to form and exert influence in a setting where civil society movements face high barriers to independence,” she says.   

Her dissertation is focused on the small Middle Eastern nation of Jordan. She locates civil society there in an unexpected setting: public-sector work spaces. “Teachers there are highly impactful not only in shaping the contours of education, but in national politics generally, and we don’t really have good explanations for why,” she says.   

Parker-Magyar has immersed herself in the dynamics of Jordanian public-sector workplaces, focusing on the contrasting cases of visibly influential teachers and more isolated public health-care employees. Her research, which paints a fine-grained picture of employee interactions and how these interactions affect political behavior, points to the centrality of social networks within the workplace.  

“I believe my data will help answer some really big questions about both political economy and contentious politics,” she says. “I also hope it will answer some related questions around the impact of political reforms — like how state workers are hired and whether they find their work satisfying — and how decentralization matters for how public sector workers do their jobs.”  

Teachers as activists  

Political science research does not often take up the topics of teachers’ political behavior and the role of state workers in social movements — especially movements that emerge outside of democracies, according to Parker-Magyar. Through detailed field work in Jordan and elsewhere, she hopes to fill that lacuna in the literature. Her research and analysis to date have already borne fruit.   

“We often think of public employees as extremely close to the party in power, because they’re perceived to get their jobs as some sort of quid pro quo” she says. “But we need to distinguish among employees — especially those in the military, for instance — and those who work in more public-facing jobs, like public school teachers and public-sector doctors.” Once employed, these workers occupy influential positions in society, with considerable agency.   

“By creating a social movement, teachers in Jordan have, to a certain extent, been granted a seat at the table,” she says, in ways that shape government policies and actions, if not necessarily electoral politics.   

Before starting her PhD, Parker-Magyar had already spent considerable time in Jordan. She traveled there to study Arabic while at Hamilton College in spring 2011. She pursued a Fulbright in the country right after graduation, serving as a teacher during a momentous time when teachers called a national strike.   

“I had become hyperaware of the social dynamics in the teachers’ lounge, and very engaged with issues in education” she says. The striking teachers wanted some changes in the curriculum and the school calendar. “They also were laying claim to a certain level freedom of association, a right to be represented as a group,” says Parker-Magyar. This was a level of organizing that bore all the attributes of political mobilization.  

Mapping workplace networks  

Parker-Magyar’s dissertation has brought her back to the teachers’ lounges, to test out her idea that social networks in schools, resulting from close ties among colleagues, are a foundational form of political engagement.  

A graduate research fellow with the MIT Governance Lab (GOV/LAB) and MIT Global Diversity Lab, Parker-Magyar deployed such cutting-edge methodologies as a networks elicitation survey to map and measure workplace social networks. She interviewed and surveyed hundreds of teachers and health care employees, in workplace after workplace. She also digitized elections data in Jordan down to the level of local polling places — a real challenge in a setting where data are scarce — to make possible fine-grained analysis of the voting characteristics of communities where public-sector employees have influence.   

Parker-Magyar’s analysis supports her hypothesis that collegial ties help drive teachers’ influence. Teachers who form strong day-to-day bonds also benefit from those bonds when they decide to lobby — sometimes on key issues like curricular reform or wages. Significantly, these connections develop across religious and identity lines. “Having really strong social networks at work and these close relationships with your colleagues can help propel a movement forward, even in really challenging conditions,” she says.  

The same organization is more challenging for doctors and hospital workers. “It is very difficult for health care workers to organize, in part because they are so non-homogeneous and hierarchical,” she says. “Doctors have a harder time coordinating with one another, let alone nurses and X-ray technicians, because their social networks are more fragmented.” While the architecture of these two public sector institutions may look the same, “teachers have major advantages in terms of their relationships with each other that allow them to sustain a social movement.”  

Parker-Magyar believes that autonomous movements that spring up among labor groups must be taken more seriously. She points out that the United States provides enormous amounts of aid to nations like Jordan: “Given the U.S. investment in education and health care practices in Jordan and around the world, we should take seriously the representation of front-line teachers, doctors, and nurses.”    

Public sector employees as political actors  

A New Jersey native, Parker-Magyar grew up in a household steeped in labor politics: Her grandfather was a steelworker and her dad helped develop a history museum related to the state’s labor movement. “I knew I was going to study politics and government from a really young age,” she says, “though the fact that my experiences in the Middle East led me to focus on labor movements has been a bit of a surprise.”   

Parker-Magyar first studied in Jordan in spring 2011, when protest movements across the Arabic-speaking world heralded a period of political change. By the time she had returned to the country for her Fulbright fellowship in 2012, the protest movement in neighboring Syria had developed into a violent civil war, sending hundreds of thousands to Jordan; nearly overnight, one in 10 people in Jordan was a refugee fleeing Syria’s conflict.   

“There was this huge humanitarian need, and I ended up staying an additional year after my Fulbright, working as a journalist in a small newsroom alongside Syrians covering what was happening in their country,” she says. “I gained a deep understanding of the costs of conflict, and it made me very passionate about having a career that attempts to communicate the realities of politics in the region to a broader audience.” 

After several years working on Syria, Parker-Magyar returned to those initial impressions from her days teaching soon after beginning her doctoral work. “I hope my work shows how seriously we should be taking teachers and public-sector workers as political actors,” she says. “These individuals provide important services, and their collective politics also shapes how those services are provided and the broader landscapes of civil society.” 

Source: Finding solidarity in the teachers’ lounge

One scientist’s journey from the Middle East to MIT

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“I recently exhaled a breath I’ve been holding in for nearly half my life. After applying over a decade ago, I’m finally an American. This means so many things to me. Foremost, it means I can go back to the the Middle East, and see my mama and the family, for the first time in 14 years.”

The words appear on a social media post next to a photo of Ubadah Sabbagh, a postdoc at MIT's McGovern Institute, who in 2021 joined the lab of Guoping Feng, the James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor at MIT. Sabbagh, a Syrian national, is dressed in a charcoal gray jacket, a keffiyeh loose around his neck, and holds his U.S. citizenship papers, which he began applying for when he was 19 and an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) studying biology and bioinformatics.

In the photo he is 29.

A clarity of vision

Sabbagh’s journey from the Middle East to his research position at MIT has been marked by determination and courage, a multifaceted curiosity, and a role as a scientist-writer/scientist-advocate. He is particularly committed to the importance of humanity in science.

“For me, a scientist is a person who is not only in the lab but also has a unique perspective to contribute to society,” he says. “The scientific method is an idea, and that can be objective. But the process of doing science is a human endeavor, and like all human endeavors, it is inherently both social and political.”

At just 30 years of age, some of Sabbagh’s ideas have disrupted conventional thinking about how science is done in the United States. He believes nations should do science not primarily to compete, for example, but to be aspirational.

“It is our job to make our work accessible to the public, to educate and inform, and to help ground policy,” he says. “In our technologically advanced society, we need to raise the baseline for public scientific intuition so that people are empowered and better equipped to separate truth from myth.”

His research and advocacy work have won him accolades, including the 2023 Young Arab Pioneers Award from the Arab Youth Center and the 2020 Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Neurochemistry. He was also named to the 2021 Forbes “30 under 30” list, the first Syrian to be selected in the Science category.

A path to knowledge

Sabbagh’s path to that knowledge began when, living on his own at age 16, he attended Longview Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, often juggling multiple jobs. It continued at UMKC, where he fell in love with biology and had his first research experience with bioinformatician Gerald Wyckoff at the same time the civil war in Syria escalated, with his family still in the Middle East. “That was a rough time for me,” he says. “I had a lot of survivor’s guilt: I am here, I have all of this stability and security compared to what they have, and while they had suffocation, I had opportunity. I need to make this mean something positive, not just for me, but in as broad a way as possible for other people.”

The war also sparked Sabbagh’s interest in human behavior — “where it originates, what motivates people to do things, but in a biological, not a psychological way,” he says. “What circuitry is engaged? What is the infrastructure of the brain that leads to X, Y, Z?”

His passion for neuroscience blossomed as a graduate student at Virginia Tech, where he earned his PhD in translational biology, medicine, and health. There, he received a six-year NIH F99/K00 Award, and under the mentorship of neuroscientist at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute he researched the connections between the eye and the brain — specifically, mapping the architecture of the principle neurons in a region of the thalamus essential to visual processing.

“The retina, and the entire visual system, struck me as elegant, with beautiful layers of diverse cells found at every node,” says Sabbagh, his own eyes lighting up.

His research earned him a coveted spot on the Forbes “30 under 30” list, generating enormous visibility, including in the Arab world, adding visitors to his already robust X (formerly Twitter) account, which has more than 9,200 followers. “The increased visibility lets me use my voice to advocate for the things I care about,” he says.

Those causes range from promoting equity and inclusion in science to transforming the American system of doing science for the betterment of science and the scientists themselves. He co-founded the nonprofit Black in Neuro to celebrate and empower Black scholars in neuroscience, and he continues to serve on the board. He is the chair of an advisory committee for the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), recommending ways SfN can better address the needs of its young members, and a member of the Advisory Committee to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) director working group charged with re-envisioning postdoctoral training. He serves on the advisory board of Community for Rigor, a new NIH initiative that aims to teach scientific rigor at national scale and, in his spare time, he writes articles about the relationship of science and policy for publications including Scientific American and The Washington Post.

Still, there have been obstacles. The same year Sabbagh received the NIH F99/K00 Award, he faced major setbacks in his application to become a citizen. He would not try again until 2021, when he had his PhD in hand and had joined the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

An MIT postdoc and citizenship

Sabbagh dove into his research in Guoping Feng’s lab with the same vigor and outside-the-box thinking that characterized his previous work. He continues to investigate the thalamus, but in a region that is less involved in processing pure sensory signals, such as light and sound, and more focused on cognitive functions of the brain. He aims to understand how thalamic brain areas orchestrate complex functions we carry out every day, including working memory and cognitive flexibility.

“This is important to understand because when this orchestra goes out of tune it can lead to a range of neurological disorders, including schizophrenia,” he says. He is also developing new tools for studying the brain using genome editing and viral engineering to expand the toolkit available to neuroscientists.

The environment at the McGovern Institute is also a source of inspiration for Sabbagh’s research. “The scale and scope of work being done at McGovern is remarkable. It’s an exciting place for me to be as a neuroscientist,” said Sabbagh. “Besides being intellectually enriching, I’ve found great community here — something that’s important to me, wherever I work.”

Returning to the Middle East

While at an advisory meeting at the NIH, Sabbagh learned he had been selected as a Young Arab Pioneer by the Arab Youth Center and was flown the next day to Abu Dhabi for a ceremony overseen by Shamma Al Mazrui, cabinet member and minister of community development in the United Arab Emirates. The ceremony recognized 20 Arab youth from around the world in sectors ranging from scientific research to entrepreneurship and community development. Sabbagh’s research “presented a unique portrayal of creative Arab youth and an admirable representation of the values of youth beyond the Arab world,” says Sadeq Jarrar, executive director of the center.

“There I was, among other young Arab leaders, learning firsthand about their efforts, aspirations, and their outlook for the future,” says Sabbagh, who was deeply inspired by the experience.

Just a month earlier, his passport finally secured, Sabbagh had reunited with his family in the Middle East after more than a decade in the United States. “I had been away for so long,” he says, describing the experience as a “cultural reawakening.”

Sabbagh saw a gaping need he had not been aware of when he left 14 years earlier, as a teen. “The Middle East had such a glorious intellectual past,” he says. “But for years people have been leaving to get their advanced scientific training, and there is no adequate infrastructure to support them if they want to go back.” He wondered: What if there were a scientific renaissance in the region? How would we build infrastructure to cultivate local minds and local talent? What if the next chapter of the Middle East included being a new nexus of global scientific advancements?

“I felt so inspired,” he says. “I have a longing, someday, to meaningfully give back.”

Source: One scientist’s journey from the Middle East to MIT

Nicole Wilson: The politics of a shifting middle class in Nigeria

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Before her time at MIT, Nicole Wilson worked as a research assistant for two graduate students studying informal trade in Lagos, Nigeria. She was quickly captivated by the nation’s vibrant commercial center, with its population of nearly 22 million.

“I had never spent more than a week or two out of the country, but I convinced myself and the people hiring me that I was adaptable enough to make it work,” says Wilson, a sixth-year doctoral student in political science. “My initial commitment was for three months, but I ended up loving the experience and extending it for about a year.”

During this period, Wilson learned of an event that shaped her academic future.

“There was a demolition of a large informal settlement, where people were violently evicted from their homes,” she recalls. Private landlords, with the support of Lagos State security forces, were clearing the land for a luxury, residential estate. “I wanted to understand what conditions made these demolitions possible, how the land tenure system worked in Nigeria and Lagos specifically, and what kind of downstream impacts there might be when replacing informal settlements with gated communities,” says Wilson.

Today, the latter question forms the core of Wilson’s dissertation project. Her research examines the political behavior of an emerging middle class in Nigeria as it increasingly moves inside private enclaves. Wilson’s seven years of field visits to Lagos, interviewing government officials, property managers, and residents of different neighborhoods, have yielded a wealth of insights with wide-ranging implications.  

“The shifts taking place in Lagos are similar to many other rapidly urbanizing contexts in Asia and Africa,” Wilson says. Her research, she hopes, will illuminate the “political role of the middle class in democracies in the Global South.”

Pay for service

Wilson’s work wades into an ongoing debate among social scientists. Some argue that the swelling middle class “plays an important role in democratization and the formation of a robust social contract between the government and citizens,” she says. Other scholars challenge this notion, pointing to evidence of middle-class disengagement. Wilson is personally interested in the migration of the middle class to gated estates that provide a sense of seclusion from surrounding society, and offer services such as power, water, and security that would normally be delivered by the state.

“Given these changes in where and how the middle class lives, I’m asking what the implications are on their engagement with the state, focusing on tax compliance and political participation,” says Wilson.

People’s willingness to pay taxes is at least somewhat dependent on whether they are satisfied with government services. Wilson’s Lagos interviewees told her they were “unhappy with the performance of the government and its ability to provide reliable services, including security,” she says. Given these attitudes, she initially expected tax compliance of such residents to be low.

After interviewing property managers, however, Wilson’s prediction changed. “I learned that estate managers, rather than just serving as substitutes for the state, sometimes act as intermediaries, communicating to the government information about taxpayers and encouraging and facilitating payments,” she says.

Wilson discovered that administrative data are consistent with that story. “The data I collected show that people who live in estates are actually more likely to pay their property taxes, which is surprising if we follow the logic that tax payment is largely based on reciprocity,” she says. “If we’re seeing the opposite, we have to ask, ‘Why is that?’”

In addition to the presence of property managers who could motivate compliance, these neighborhoods are much more legible to the state: residents in gated communities have street addresses, and can be easily located, she notes. Wilson also believes that “social norms may play a role if these neighborhoods are tight-knit.” She is currently conducting a survey of property managers to tease out why we see these patterns.

Wilson is also in the midst of investigating the other side of her dissertation question, involving political participation. With recent election data and targeted surveys, she aims to estimate turnout rates for the residents of gated communities as well as their engagement in political protests and public meetings.

Even if residents of private communities have greater tax compliance and continued political participation, Wilson is hesitant to argue that the shift to gated living has little consequence for democratic engagement. “Moving into these enclaves might alter residents’ relationship to the broader political community, in terms of their ties to other Lagos citizens.” Further, if middle class residents are not withdrawing their tax payments when they opt for private service provision, there may be reduced pressure on the state to improve public service delivery.

Urban politics

As a sociology and criminal justice major at the University of Georgia, Wilson explored a range of career interests. She interned at a child advocacy center but gravitated from front-line work to focus on better understanding the institutions shaping people’s lives. After graduation, she moved to Washington, where she held a series of jobs, including for a human rights organization. A yearlong fellowship in in an intentional community gave her the time to think strategically about the next steps in her career.

At American University, she found what she was looking for: a master’s program in justice, law, and society. There, she says, “I got in with political scientists.” Assisting a professor in the Peace and Violence Research Lab, Wilson gained skills in data collection and statistical analysis. She found herself drawn to the field of international development, but felt she needed field research experience to decide if she should continue on to a PhD. She landed in Lagos, where her work on a survey project settled the question. The MIT political science doctoral program came next.

“I was drawn to the MIT Governance Lab, with its focus on working with practitioners,” she says. GOV/LAB, as it’s known, partners with civil society organizations and governments to test theories of political behavior and ways to make governments more accountable. Professor Lily L. Tsai, lab founder and director, is co-chair of Wilson’s thesis committee, along with Associate Professor Noah Nathan.

While she has focused on Lagos, Wilson says, “I am also interested in other cities, including in the U.S., and like to think of myself more as an urban politics scholar rather than an African politics scholar.”

When reflecting on her academic experience, Wilson also cites the enrichment afforded by her teaching opportunities. In addition to assisting in quantitative methodology classes, she has served as a teaching fellow for an experiential ethics class offered to undergraduates and as the department’s Teaching Development Fellow through MIT’s Teaching and Learning Lab. “I have learned that I really love teaching,” she says.

After she earns her PhD, Wilson hopes “to end up in a job at a teaching-focused institution that allows me to continue doing research,” she says. “I want to have an impact with my work, and the influence I can have through teaching often feels a lot more direct and tangible.”

Source: Nicole Wilson: The politics of a shifting middle class in Nigeria

Re-imagining our theories of language

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Over a decade ago, the neuroscientist Ev Fedorenko asked 48 English speakers to complete tasks like reading sentences, recalling information, solving math problems, and listening to music. As they did this, she scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging to see which circuits were activated. If, as linguists have proposed for decades, language is connected to thought in the human brain, then the language processing regions would be activated even during nonlinguistic tasks.

Fedorenko's experiment, published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that when it comes to arithmetic, musical processing, general working memory, and other nonlinguistic tasks, language regions of the human brain showed no response. Contrary to what many linguistists have claimed, complex thought and language are separate things. One does not require the other. "We have this highly specialized place in the brain that doesn't respond to other activities," says Fedorenko, who is an associate professor at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. "It's not true that thought critically needs language."

The design of the experiment, using neuroscience to understand how language works, how it evolved, and its relation to other cognitive functions, is at the heart of Fedorenko's research. She is part of a unique intellectual triad at MIT's Department of BCS, along with her colleagues Roger Levy and Ted Gibson. (Gibson and Fedorenko have been married since 2007). Together they have engaged in a years-long collaboration and built a significant body of research focused on some of the biggest questions in linguistics and human cognition. While working in three independent labs — EvLab, TedLab, and the Computational Psycholinguistics Lab — the researchers are motivated by a shared fascination with the human mind and how language works in the brain. "We have a great deal of interaction and collaboration," says Levy. "It's a very broadly collaborative, intellectually rich and diverse landscape."

Using combinations of computational modeling, psycholinguistic experimentation, behavioral data, brain imaging, and large naturalistic language datasets, the researchers also share an answer to a fundamental question: What is the purpose of language? Of all the possible answers to why we have language, perhaps the simplest and most obvious is communication. "Believe it or not," says Ted Gibson, "that is not the standard answer."

Gibson first came to MIT in 1993 and joined the faculty of the Linguistics Department in 1997. Recalling the experience today, he describes it as frustrating. The field of linguistics at that time was dominated by the ideas of Noam Chomsky, one of the founders of MIT's Graduate Program in Linguistics, who has been called the father of modern linguistics. Chomsky's "nativist" theories of language posited that the purpose of language is the articulation of thought and that language capacity is built-in in advance of any learning. But Gibson, with his training in math and computer science, felt that researchers didn't satisfyingly test these ideas. He believed that finding the answer to many outstanding questions about language required quantitative research, a departure from standard linguistic methodology. "The data you can get can be much broader if you crowdsource lots of people using experimental methods," Gibson says. Chomsky's ascendancy in linguistics presented Gibson with what he saw as a challenge and an opportunity. "I felt like I had to figure it out in detail and see if there was truth in these claims," he says.

Three decades after he first joined MIT, Gibson believes that the collaborative research at BCS is persuasive and provocative, pointing to new ways of thinking about human culture and cognition. "Now we're at a stage where it is not just arguments against. We have a lot of positive stuff saying what language is," he explains. Levy adds: "I would say all three of us are of the view that communication plays a very import role in language learning and processing, but also in the structure of language itself."

Levy points out that the three researchers completed PhDs in different subjects: Fedorenko in neuroscience, Gibson in computer science, Levy in linguistics. Yet for years before their paths finally converged at MIT, their shared interests in quantitative linguistic research led them to follow each other's work closely and be influenced by it. The first collaboration between the three was in 2005 and focused on language processing in Russian relative clauses. Around that time, Gibson recalls, Levy was presenting what he describes as "lovely work" that was instrumental in helping him to understand the links between language structure and communication. "Communicative pressures drive the structures," says Gibson. "Roger was crucial for that. He was the one helping me think about those things a long time ago."

Levy's lab is focused on the intersection of artificial intelligence, linguistics, and psychology, using natural language processing tools. "I try to use the tools that are afforded by mathematical and computer science approaches to language to formalize scientific hypotheses about language and the human mind and test those hypotheses," he says.

Levy points to ongoing research between him and Gibson focused on language comprehension as an example of the benefits of collaboration. "One of the big questions is: When language understanding fails, why does it fail?" Together, the researchers have applied the concept of a "noisy channel," first developed by the information theorist Claude Shannon in the 1950s, which says that information or messages are corrupted in transmission. "Language understanding unfolds over time, involving an ongoing integration of the past with the present," says Levy. "Memory itself is an imperfect channel conveying the past from our brain a moment ago to our brain now in order to support successful language understanding." Indeed, the richness of our linguistic environment, the experience of hundreds of millions of words by adulthood, may create a kind of statistical knowledge guiding our expectations, beliefs, predictions, and interpretations of linguistic meaning. "Statistical knowledge of language actually interacts with the constraints of our memory," says Levy. "Our experience shapes our memory for language itself."

All three researchers say they share the belief that by following the evidence, they will eventually discover an even bigger and more complete story about language. "That's how science goes," says Fedorenko. "Ted trained me, along with Nancy Kanwisher, and both Ted and Roger are very data-driven. If the data is not giving you the answer you thought, you don't just keep pushing your story. You think of new hypotheses. Almost everything I have done has been like that." At times, Fedorenko's research into parts of the brain's language system has surprised her and forced her to abandon her hypotheses. "In a certain project I came in with a prior idea that there would be some separation between parts that cared about combinatorics versus words meanings," she says, "but every little bit of the language system is sensitive to both. At some point, I was like, this is what the data is telling us, and we have to roll with it."

The researchers' work pointing to communication as the constitutive purpose of language opens new possibilities for probing and studying non-human language. The standard claim is that human language has a drastically more extensive lexicon than animals, which have no grammar. "But many times, we don't even know what other species are communicating," says Gibson. "We say they can't communicate, but we don't know. We don't speak their language." Fedorenko hopes that more opportunities to make cross-species linguistic comparisons will open up. "Understanding where things are similar and where things diverge would be super useful," she says.

Meanwhile, the potential applications of language research are far-reaching. One of Levy’s current research projects focuses on how people read and use machine learning algorithms informed by the psychology of eye movements to develop proficiency tests. By tracking the eye movements of people who speak English as a second language while they read texts in English, Levy can predict how good they are at English, an approach that could one day replace the Test of English as a Foreign Language. "It's an implicit measure of language rather than a much more game-able test," he says.

The researchers agree that some of the most exciting opportunities in the neuroscience of language lies with large language models that provide new opportunities for asking new questions and making new discoveries. "In the neuroscience of language, the kind of stories that we've been able to tell about how the brain does language were limited to verbal, descriptive hypotheses," says Fedorenko. Computationally implemented models are now amazingly good at language and show some degree of alignment to the brain, she adds. Now, researchers can ask questions such as: what are the actual computations that cells are doing to get meaning from strings of words? "You can now use these models as tools to get insights into how humans might be processing language," she says. "And you can take the models apart in ways you can't take apart the brain." 

Source: Re-imagining our theories of language

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