McGovern-Crispr_02.11.16Some of today’s hottest new technologies are at work at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Heard of CRISPR-Cas9? It’s among the new techniques accelerating biomedical research worldwide. McGovern investigator Feng Zhang, a bioengineer with appointments at the Broad Institute and the MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Science department, developed key components of the editing tool used on the genomes of living cells and organisms.

What does CRISPR-Cas9 do? First, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) can replace damaged genes with good ones by using RNA to target a bad area and an enzyme called Cas9 to snip it out; it can also target many genes at once. Zhang, who has been called the “most transformative biologist of his generation,” is using the technique to study complex disorders, such as psychiatric and neurological diseases, that are caused by multiple genetic and environmental risk factors and are difficult to model using conventional methods.

Watch Genome Editing with CRISPR – Cas9, one of McGovern’s explainer videos, to see the technique in action.

McGovern-saxe-baby-02-11-16During Zhang’s graduate studies at Stanford, he contributed to a project led by neuroscience professor Karl Deisseroth and graduate student Ed Boyden ’99, MEng ’99 on the development of optogenetics, a method of slipping light-sensitive proteins into neurons. As a result, Boyden and other scientists use light to activate specific neural circuits and reveal which circuits control specific behaviors, a way to search for the roots of illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Boyden, who also has appointments at the MIT Media Lab and the departments of brain and cognitive science and biological engineering, recently won a Breakthrough Prize for the development of optogenetics, which he is using to explore potential treatments for epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and mood disorders.

Watch What is optogenetics? to understand the technique.


A fork in the road (© Rowland Williams).

A fork in the road (© Rowland Williams).

Rowland Williams ’72 is a photographer living in Amesbury, MA. View more photos on his website. View more alumni via the Photo of the Week category


Team MIT Hyperloop2_edit

The MIT Hyperloop Team accepts the award for Best Overall Design at the Hyperloop Pod Competition’s Design Weekend

Want to travel at the speed of sound? Elon Musk does and he’s engaging student teams around the world to design a new form of transportation vehicle capable of traveling that fast. Naturally MIT students were quick to respond and, in fact, won the first design round.

The Hyperloop Pod Competition focuses on the design of a pod, a prototype vehicle that will travel inside the Hyperloop track—an air-evacuated above-ground tube intended to connect major cities. At least that’s the vision that Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has been advancing since 2013.

The MIT Hyperloop team entered Design Weekend, the first stage of  judging, in late January at Texas A&M feeling confident and came away on top—their design for the pod was named best overall design out of the more than 100 teams.

A rendering of the MIT Hyperloop pod

A rendering of the MIT Hyperloop pod

“It’s important to us that we perform well in this competition both to represent MIT and to have the opportunity to contribute to what could be the future of transportation,” says team captain Philippe Kirschen, a master’s student in aeronautics and astronautics. “The thought that technology we are developing now could be part of a full-scale Hyperloop one day is tremendously exciting.”

The MIT Hyperloop pod is focused on three key technologies, high-speed, low-drag levitation, lateral control, and fail-safe emergency braking. Chris Merian, chief engineer and master’s student in mechanical engineering, showed a panel of industry experts and faculty advisors the effectiveness of their design through CAD drawings and specifications, simulations, cost of build, and timeline. Kirschen says that their team’s focus and commitment to design a pod that is safe, scalable, and feasible is what won the judges over and, specifically, their method of levitation—electrodynamic suspension.

Although Musk’s original idea proposed that the pod be lifted off the ground using air bearings, the MIT team has chosen a different way to keep it off the ground. “We chose electrodynamic levitation because it is massively simpler and more scalable,” says Merian.

Greg Monahan, levitation lead and master’s student in mechanical engineering, says that their decision to use electrodynamic suspension came after exploring several methods of levitation. “It’s entirely passive so we can design a permanent magnet array, stick it to the bottom, and use the motion of the pusher to generate our own lift so we don’t have to come up with complex control systems.” Monahan said that once they chose the levitation method, they did a lot of simulation and parametric studies to determine the best design for their system—settling on a design that set them apart in the end. “We had one of the lowest drag levitation systems,” says Monahan.

The team—which includes 25 students from aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and business management—will spend the next five months building and testing their pod. The final prototype will participate in a trial run on the one-mile Hyperloop Test Track at the SpaceX headquarters in California for the final Competition Weekend in June.

Read more about the team and follow their progress.


Joseph Jacobson PhD ′93 and his team invented e-ink.

MIT Professor Joseph Jacobson PhD ‘93 and his team invented e-ink.

Nearly one-third of the 2016 National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) inductees hail from MIT. NIHF, in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), is recognizing 16 individuals, described as having a revolutionary impact on the nation, at a May 5 ceremony in Washington DC.

Three of the MIT alumni worked together to create electronic ink. The two others worked on projects involving Internet advances, such as spanning tree protocol (STP), and the computer graphics break though, Sketchpad.

Electronic Ink

Jonathan (JD) Albert ′97, a mechanical engineering major and Barrett Comiskey ′97, a mathematics major, worked with MIT professor Joseph Jacobson PhD ′93 to develop a changeable display for as many books as could be stored in a device’s memory. Albert, Comiskey, and Jacobson combined their skills from different disciplines and in January 1997 they completed a working prototype of electronic ink, which is the technology cornerstone of the e-reader and e-book industry.

What are they doing today? Jacobson is head of the MIT Media Lab’s Molecular Machines research group. Commiskey has relocated to Asia to work on bridging the digital divide for billions of people in developing countries. Albert teaches product design, engineering, and entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania and is the director of engineering for Bresslergroup, a product design and development firm.

Internet Advances: STP, reliable and scalable routing

Radia Perlman ’73, SM ’76, PhD ’88 invented STP, which transformed the Ethernet.

Radia Perlman ’73, SM ’76, PhD ’88 invented STP, which transformed the Ethernet.

Radia Perlman ′73, SM ′76, PhD ′88 has played a key role in driving the growth and development of the Internet. Her best known contribution came in 1985: the spanning tree protocol (STP), which transformed Ethernet from a technology limited to a few hundred nodes confined in a single building, into a technology that can create large networks. Perlman holds over 100 patents and has received many awards, including induction into the National Academy of Engineering, the Internet Hall of Fame, and lifetime achievement awards from ACM’s SIGCOMM and Usenix.

What is she doing now? Perlman, author of Interconnections, a widely read text on network routing and bridging, and coauthor of Network Security, is currently a fellow at EMC Corporation.

Sketchpad: A Human-Machine Graphical Communication System

Ivan Sutherland PhD ′63, considered the father of computer graphics, invented Sketchpad, a human-machine graphical communication system, which broke new ground in 3D computer modeling, visual simulation, and human-computer interaction. Sutherland’s invention enabled users to design and draw in real time directly on the computer display, using a light pen.

What is he doing today?  Sutherland leads research in asynchronous systems—computers with no global clock—at Portland State University’s Asynchronous Research Center, which he founded in 2008 with Marly Roncken.


A few years ago, Shireen Taleghani MBA ‘13, who is gluten sensitive, had an idea to make her life and the lives of others easier. She wanted to develop a sensor device that could help identify foods with the sometimes-troublesome protein gluten.

2.1.16_6SensorLabs 2

The Nima sensor

“I was at a wedding and asked the waitress if the appetizers were gluten free,” she explains. “The waitress responded by asking ‘How allergic are you?’ I thought then how much easier it would be if I just had a way of knowing what was really in my food,” she remembers.

To turn her idea into reality, Taleghani needed help. “I knew what I wanted to do required a great deal of chemical and mechanical engineering knowledge,” she says. Taleghani reached out to a friend at MIT Sloan who connected her with Scott Sundvor ‘12, an undergrad student studying mechanical engineering, who also happened to have a gluten sensitivity.

Sundvor and Taleghani began working together on their company glutenTech—now 6SensorLabs—in advance of the MIT 100k Competition, where they walked away with two wins—the audience choice award and meeting Jingqing Zhang SM ’12, PhD ’13, who would become the lead scientist for the company. To further develop their idea, Taleghani and Sundvor worked with MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator (GFSA) as well as MIT’S Venture Mentoring Service. “Every resource we could possibly use, we used,” Taleghani says.

The sensor, named Nima, is a small triangle with an opening for a “consumable,” a food sample placed in a cartridge. After sliding the sample into the sensor, it

6SensorLabs celebrates their TechCrunch Battlefield win.

6SensorLabs celebrates their TechCrunch Battlefield win.

takes just a few minutes for Nima to deem a food as safe or unsafe by displaying a smiley or frowny face on the display. Foods are considered unsafe if they contain more than 20 parts per millions of gluten. The sensor identifies the gluten by detecting an antibody—a type of test many may be familiar with. “It’s like a pregnancy test for gluten,” Taleghani says.

Currently the sensor only tests for gluten, but 6SensorLabs plans to expand the device’s capability to detect peanuts, dairy, and much more, giving people more power when it come to their food choices. “We want people to be able to know what’s in their food, whether that’s sugar, salt, whatever.  We want to be able to look at consumption and what you’re putting in your body far beyond calorie counting,” she says.




Screenshot via Fusion Media

Patrick McCabe ’16 might have the coolest gadgets on campus: an  electric solar tricycle,  a nano-sumo fighting robot, a computerized Etch-a-Sketch, and nearly-unbeatable Connect Four Robot.

And better yet, they’re all homemade creations, thanks in part to online tutorials and a self-teaching mindset. McCabe was recently profiled in a video with Fusion Media, where he discusses his love for building robots and showcases a few of his inventions in Bldg. 26-100.

“Building robots has really taken me to my dream college, MIT, I’ve gotten internships at robotics startups, I’ll be at SpaceX building rockets. Learning how to write code, use electronics, design circuits, it’s the basis of a lot of other technologies. I really hope everyone just goes out in the world and builds more robots. I think more robots in the world is just going to make a more entertaining and interesting world.”

McCabe, a senior, plans to join a San Francisco startup after graduation. The Tampa Bay native’s website,, has a comprehensive list of his own robotic inventions, including the Useless Machine (true to its name), and the useful Mailman robot, which won the 2014 MASLAB Robotics Competition.

H/T to Fusion’s Sam Ford SM ’07 for sharing Patrick’s video.


Old friends with baguettes (© Owen Franken)

Old friends with baguettes (© Owen Franken)

Learn more about Owen Franken from his profile, read a What Matters opinion column he wrote called “Life in Brownian Motion,” or visit his Web site.

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What do you get when you combine the inquiring minds of MIT alumni with a country known for its butterflies, birds, sloths, and quality education system? Answer: The MIT Alumni Travel Program’s trip to Costa Rica.

This past November, the MIT Alumni Travel Program hosted a group of 19 alumni travelers on a tour of Costa Rica’s natural heritage and history. Listen to the highlights of the trip in this Slice of MIT podcast.

Costa Rica is home to 10 percent of the world’s known species of butterflies and more than 800 species of birds. That’s a lot for a country roughly the size of West Virginia.

Slide background The MIT Alumni Travel group at Poas Volcano. Credit: M. Vindas
Slide background Howler Monkey. Credit: V. Baily
Slide background Poas Volcano
Slide background Alumni visiting with Costa Rican school girls
Slide background Crocodile greeting. Credit: V. Baily
Slide background Marvin Rockwell, an American Quaker pioneer. Credit: V. Baily
Slide background Lori and Craig Lewis '72 in botanical garden. Credit: V. Baily
Slide background Sloth and her baby. Credit: V. Baily
Slide background Vicky Baily on a canopy bridge. Credit: S. Lobban
Slide background Katydid insect. Credit: V. Baily
Slide background Capuchin Monkey. Credit: V. Baily


In addition to exploring much of the country’s natural diversity, the travelers learned of Costa Rica’s reputation as a peaceful nation. The country’s military was abolished in 1948 under the leadership of President José Figueres Ferrer, a 1926 MIT alumnus. Ferrer reallocated its military budget to education, and Costa Rica now boasts the highest literacy rate in Latin America.

“This was the survey course on Costa Rica,” said Paul Epstein ’69. “It was like being in school with your favorite teacher,” as Suzanne Fass described the trip’s guide. “We knew we were going to have a guide, but we didn’t know how fabulous he was going to be.”

Travelers visited Poas Volcano in the country’s Central Valley, learned (and tasted!) why coffee is one of the country’s top exports, danced with girls at a village school, and hiked the trails of a family-owned botanical orchid garden. “Today we walked in the jungle to see orchids in their native habitat,” said Susan Meredith. “How many people are lucky enough to do that?!” She described this combination of educational and experiential activities as a key element of MIT Alumni tours.

For many, the trip offered an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals. While traversing the swaying suspension bridges that overlooked rainforest, several alumni compared notes on bridge mechanics and frequency, joking about their classroom days at MIT. Each day included detailed lessons around nature sightings—from the red-eyed tree frog at a nature preserve, sloths in trees on the side of the road, howler monkeys exchanging calls, and even bats.

On many commercial tours, travelers tend to be interested in big things, said Peter Lobban ’66. “And on this tour, they’re excited about a bug. And that makes it unique. Sonja and I are always the ones that are excited about everything—plants, animals, insects, whatever. And we seldom have any company.”

The group also met with a 93-year-old American Quaker who shared his family’s harrowing experience traveling from Alabama to Costa Rica to start a new life. They founded the town of Monte Verde, and built a cheese-making factory that now produces more than 8,000 pounds of cheese a day.

“The trip itself was so well organized,” recalled Bob Mousley ’57. “Everything went like clockwork.”

Listen to the “Travel to Costa Rica with your Ears” podcast to experience the trip for yourself. Music Credits: “Cuban Sandwich,” “Carnivale Intrigue,” “Cumbia No Frills,” and “Pennsylvania Rose,” Kevin MacLeod ( Subscribe to the Slice of MIT podcast on iTunes and SoundCloud. Listen to past podcasts with novelists, professors, and entrepreneurs by visiting the Alumni Association’s SoundCloud page.

The MIT Alumni Travel Program offers more than 35 trips each year, many led by MIT faculty. The program is booking now for a safari in Botswana and Zambia, a rail program in New England, and a custom tour of Switzerland. Hold your spot and learn more by visiting


The latest urban musical instrument created by Christopher Janney SM ’78, an artist, musician, and architect, greeted students at a Cambridge MA public school in January. These days students can walk down a hallway and touch or wave at a 7×32-foot panel that, in response, produces light, harmonic tones, indigenous bird songs, and forest sounds. The piece, titled Light Shadow MLK, makes the young teens, a notoriously tough crowd, laugh out loud.

Janney particularly likes working in schools and hospitals. His master’s thesis, created when he was studying environmental art with Otto Piene at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, was a prototype of Soundstair, the responsive musical experience he has since created at Boston’s Museum of Science, Boston Children’s Hospital, and elsewhere. Kids and parents, the frisky and the ill, find a moment of delight as they produce music walking up and down the stairway.

Light Shadow MLK, located in the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Putnam Avenue Upper Schools, contains a riddle, a device he has used in other interactive architectural pieces. When the students solve the riddle, they are rewarded by a spontaneous dance of light and sound resounding from the wall, a grid that holds 200 sensors, LED lights, as well as 16 audio speakers.

“As long as I’ve always been making interactive sound and light installations, there has always been an educational component, especially in an academic environment. In a sense, the interactive work is a catalyst for education, using the instrument almost as a laboratory,” he says. The project is designed so that students will be able to experiment and reprogram the wall, which was funded by the Cambridge Arts Council’s Percent for Art program.

“Using art as part of education, that’s probably what intrigues me the most and where I find the most alignment with my own work,” Janney says. “Art is not just something solitary sitting on a wall, but, as artist Marcel Duchamp said, it only completes itself when it becomes part of the world.”

Students interact with Light Shadow MLK, Janney's new artwork in their school.

Students interact with Light Shadow MLK, Janney’s new artwork in their school.

His interactive pieces include diverse components: steam, water, dance performances, musical fire-stacks, computers, synthesizers, and all manner of building materials. His projects, which he describes as making architecture more spontaneous and music more physical, include Turn Up the Heat, the design of the Miami Heat scoreboard and season opener performances; HeartBeat, a dance performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov to a musical score based on the human heartbeat; and Sonic Forest, an arrangement of 25 eight-foot columns outfitted with photo sensors, lights, and loudspeakers that has toured urban plazas in the US and abroad.

When Janney turned on Sonic Forest the first time, he found he had created a human-scale forest and a 25-speaker surround-sound system. And, as with all of Janney’s projects, he learned from the artwork itself.

“When you finally get it built and first turn it on in the real world, it’s far more powerful than in your dreams,” Janney says. “And it starts to teach you.”

Visit Janney’s website to explore his work.


mit2016-logoThe year 2016 marks the 100-year anniversary of MIT’s historic campus move across the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge. And beginning this spring, the MIT community will commemorate the river crossing and Celebrate a Century in Cambridge, which will feature nearly two months of centennial programming that honors the campus move.

And of course, no MIT celebration would be complete without a spirited competition—and MIT alumni.

The Bucentaur barge that transported the MIT charter across the Charles River in 2016.

The Bucentaur barge that transported the MIT charter across the Charles River in 2016.

Among the many events that will mark the centennial is the Crossing the Charles Competition, which will take place on Saturday, May 7, a.k.a. “Moving Day,” a day-long celebration that will commemorate the 1916 ceremonial flotilla that physically transported the Institute’s charter across the Charles River to its new Cambridge home.

The competition invites the MIT community to recapture the spirit of the original crossing and build a vehicle that crosses the Charles River by land or water. According to the Boston Globe, the 1916 crossing featured a naval regatta and Venetian-style barge called the Bucentaur that transported the charter. The 2016 crossing aims to be more high-tech.

MIT to host ‘Moving Day’ parade and celebration,” Boston Globe

“We are going to do some sort of reenactment of the original parade—but rather than call the Navy and ask them to bring a submarine, we are asking MIT students to come up with their own answers about how to cross the river,” said Professor John Ochsendorf, chairman of “Moving Day.”

According to the competition rules, the entries can move autonomously or not; can represent transport through artistic expression; and can demonstrate types of transport other than physical (like thought or emotion). View all the official rules on the MIT 2016 site.

How will you cross the Charles in 2015?

How will you cross the Charles in 2016?

All MIT faculty, students, staff, and alumni are invited to form or join teams of any size. (Non-MIT community members can make no more than 25 percent of each team.) According to the site, points can be earned for expressing speed, beauty, inclusiveness, an only-at-MIT sentiment, and evoking MIT’s celebration of a century in Cambridge, among other attributes.

The contest will be judged a panel of six MIT leaders, including Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88 and Provost Martin Schmidt SM ’83, PhD ’88, and the top five competition winners will be invited to cross the stage during the Mind and Hand Pageant later that day.

Sign up is open and runs through Monday, February 8. Visit the Crossing the Charles Competition webpage for more information plus full rules, deadlines, and eligibility requirements.

Happy sailing! See you on the other side of the river on May 7.