Alice_Brooks '10. Photo: Paul Sakuma

Alice Brooks ’10. Photo: Paul Sakuma

When Alice Brooks ’10 was eight years old, she asked for a Barbie for Christmas. To her surprise, her father told her that Santa Claus didn’t bring dolls.

“Santa brought me a saw instead,” Brooks says. “It worked out great. I ended up building a dollhouse.”

That gift sparked a passion for science and engineering that eventually led her to co-create the Roominate, a construction kit for a dollhouse that can be electrically wired. Time magazine called it the number one toy of 2014.

While in graduate school in 2012, Brooks and fellow Stanford student Bettina Chen recalled shared childhood experiences of building and making. But after looking at the modern toy market for girls ages six to 10, they saw little that spoke to the same interests.

“We wanted to create an engineering product that would be exciting and fun,” she says. “Girls love dolls and stuffed animals. But they also love Legos and Lincoln Logs, too.”

After months of research, Brooks and Chen launched Roominate through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. They reached their $25,000 goal in less than five days, raised more than $85,000 in 30 days, and sold nearly 1,800 units.

“We were amazed by what these girls built—it went way beyond a dollhouse,” says Brooks. “We got pictures of doggy hotels, car washes, a cotton-candy maker, and a fully lit Golden Gate Bridge—completely built from their imagination.”


Roominate on Shark Tank. Video via abc.go.com.

Roominate’s popularity further increased in September 2014, when it was featured on Shark Tank, a television series that showcases entrepreneurs making business proposals to a panel of investors. Two “sharks,” Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner, combined to invest $500,000 for a 5 percent equity share. Cuban’s investment was contingent on a promise that Brooks and Chen would mentor his two young daughters.

“We e-mail weekly with Mark, and he’s been really helpful,” Brooks says. “A lot of his ideas are influenced by what he sees from his girls, who are in Roominate’s target age. The partnership has been great.”

A Massachusetts native, Brooks received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford and still lives in Northern California. She says the company’s long-term goal is to create even more opportunities for young girls to fall in love—and stay in love—with science and engineering.

“We’re taking in feedback and stepping up the complexity,” she says. “We have a lot of things coming this year. Girls’ interests are always changing, and we want to evolve with them.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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Calm, Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine (© Rowland Williams).

Calm, Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine (© 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

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Today marks 25 years since the Hubble Telescope was launched into space. Thanks to over one million images Hubble has collected, scientists now have a dramatically enhanced understanding of the universe.

Hubble’s observations have allowed scientists to confirm the existence of black holes and identify new galaxies and planets. It observed and captured images of Supernova 1987A, a massive explosion marking the death of a star. This is notable since the last time astronomers observed a supernova was in the 1600s. And in March, Hubble observed the splitting of a supernova into four images.

MIT alumni and faculty have been a part of much of Hubble’s history. Mike Massimino SM ’88, ENG ’90, ME ’90, PhD ’92, MIT AeroAstro Professor Jeff Hoffman, John Grunsfeld ’80, Mark C. Lee SM ’80  have all contributed to either Hubble’s launch or participated in the telescope’s five repair and servicing missions.

“It [Hubble] can travel at 17,500 miles an hour, but yet it can fix a gaze on part of the sky so accurately as if you were shooting a laser from the Empire State Building, you could hit a dime on the Washington Monument,” said Mike Massimino of Hubble’s observation abilities. Massimino was part of STS-109 and STS-125 missions to upgrade and repair the Hubble Telescope.

Watch our Happy Birthday Hubble video to learn more about how the Hubble Telescope operates, how it was conceived, and its contributions to scientific research.

 The Happy Birthday Hubble video was produced by MITAA videographer Brielle Domings. 

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Feng Zhang applies his engineering background to problems in human health.

Feng Zhang applies his engineering background to problems in human health.

Genome editing is hot—especially at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Through a special two-day Faculty Forum Online, you can learn how a new gene editing process may transform genetic engineering and open new paths to fight disease. The Broad’s Genome Engineering 3.0 Workshop is available to MIT alumni free via webcast on May 8‒9.

The workshop is organized by Feng Zhang, who won a 2014 patent for the CRISPR-Cas9 method, and his lab at the Broad Institute. Zhang is the W.M. Keck Career Development Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering and a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Broad Institute. While in graduate school at Stanford, he co-developed a revolutionary technology called optogenetics, now used by neuroscientists worldwide, and he used this and other tools to study animal models of depression and schizophrenia. His work at the Broad focuses on development of synthetic biology tools, like the CRISPR-Cas9 method, to study neuropsychiatric disease. Visit his McGovern page to view terrific short videos on his work and genome editing.

The CRISPR system has the potential to radically alter the current understanding of genetic engineering and how it could be applied to the treatment of diseases. In essence, it is a search-and-replace method for altering DNA.

Here’s how the Broad describes this breakthrough:

CRISPRs (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) have been harnessed as genome-editing tools in a wide range of species. The engineered CRISPR-Cas9 system allows researchers to mutate or change the expression of genes in living cells. The family of Cas9 nucleases—the centerpiece of this genome-editing system—recognizes DNA targets in complex with RNA guides. Researchers can now use these tools to home in on specific genes within the genome and cut the DNA at those precise targets. The cuts modify the activity of the targeted genes, allowing researchers to study the genes’ function.

Want to know more?

Register today for the May 8-9 Faculty Forum Online to listen to keynotes by MIT faculty and leading researchers, technical talks, and lively debates about the future of biotechnology, ethics, intellectual property, and academia vs. industry.

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Print
What’s the science behind a warming climate, and can it be combated? In this All Ears MIT podcast, MIT faculty members discuss the history and science behind Earth’s warming climate, and if anything can be done to mitigate a rising global temperature.

Some public debates on climate change tend be centered on complex numerical models—great for predicting quantitative estimates, not so great for collaborative discussions and brainstorming solutions. During this podcast, listen to four MIT faculty members—supported by historical and scientific data—discuss divergent areas of climate-related research, including coastal flooding, global warming, hurricane activity, and economic policy.

Subscribe to All Ears MIT on iTunes and SoundCloud. Listen to past podcasts with novelists, professors, and entrepreneurs by visiting the Alumni Association’s SoundCloud page.

Associate Professor Dan Cziczo
Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
Cziczo is an atmospheric scientist studying how whose research is analyzing the effects that clouds may have in a increasingly warming climate. His research focuses the effect of atmospheric aerosols on cloud formations, meteoritic debris, and vehicle emissions in the atmosphere.

Kerry Emanuel

Professor Kerry Emanuel ’76, PhD ’78
Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Emanuel is a co-founder of the Lorenz Center, MIT’s climate activity think tank. He is the author of What We Know about Climate Change and his research on hurricane activity earned him a place on Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2006.

Knittel_225

Professor Christopher Knittel
MIT Sloan School of Management
Knittel co-directs MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. The first energy chair at MIT, he has studied consumer and company reactions to energy price fluctuations—including rising prices of gasoline—and its implications on effective environmental policies.

whittle_225

Professor Andrew Whittle ScD ’87
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Professor Andrew J. Whittle is a geotechnical engineer who served on the panel reviewing the hurricane protection systems in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s safety review of Boston’s Big Dig tunnel system.

 

These interviews were culled from the Alumni Association’s Faculty Forum Online series—monthly live webcasts that feature faculty interviews on timely and relevant topics. View the entire archive on the Alumni Association website.

For more information on climate change research, visit  the Climate Change Conversation at MIT website, which is exploring the actions that MIT could take to make a significant positive contribution to confront climate change. MIT alumni can join the Energy, Environment and Sustainability Network, a group of worldwide alumni volunteers who want to share their energy interests with others.

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Externship students (from left) Bryan Williams ’16, Stanley Cen ’18, Berj Chilingirian ’16, and Joey Conway G

MIT IAP externship students (from left) Bryan Williams ’16, Stanley Cen ’18, Berj Chilingirian ’16, and Joey Conway G

For many MIT students, the annual Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January serves as a short-term break from all things MIT. But for five MITers who spent IAP at NASDAQ’s Boston office, it was the opposite: strangers-turned-friends who spent nearly the entire month working side-by-side.

“I didn’t even know there would be other students going in to it,” says Bryan Williams ’16. “But by the end, we were inseparable—lunch together, same meetings, and helping each other out whenever it was needed.”

Williams was part of a group that also included Stanley Cen ’18, Berj Chilingirian ’16, Joey Conway G, and Uma Girkar ’17 who worked with NASDAQ through the Alumni Association’s Externship Program, which places MIT students in alumni-sponsored externships (short-term internships) around the globe. This year’s program featured nearly 400 students—including 45 graduate students—working at 278 companies in 16 states and seven countries.

“There was definitely a shared connection from the beginning,” Chilingirian. “We didn’t know each other, but when I’m working with someone from MIT, I have an inherent trust that they’re capable. It was amazing what we accomplished together in a short time.”

NASDAQ senior vice president Heather Abbott, Cen, Uma Girkar ’17, Williams, Chilingirian, and Conway

NASDAQ senior vice president Heather Abbott, Cen, Uma Girkar ’17, Williams, Chilingirian, and Conway

The MIT students spent the externship in a shared office collaborating together and working on individual projects, like creating an app that could help NASDAQ’s sales team predict customer behavior.

“We hit the ground running from the first day,” says Chilingirian, “We got a rough outline of the work that needed to be done and our team was motivated to attack the presented problems. They basically said, ‘Here’s what we can give you—what can you do with it?’”

Each student served a played a different role in the group. For example, Conway, and MBA candidate, acted as de fact project manager while Cen, a first-year undergraduate, focused on programming.

“I’ve basically been programming since the fourth grade,” says Cen. “And our group was able to produce a list customers that were likely candidates to cancel in the next month. We definitely learned a lot and got a lot done.”

The paid externship was sponsored by NASDAQ EVP and CIO Brad Peterson SM ’89, P ’16, who connected with the students throughout their stay at NASDAQ and helped craft their work environment.

“They made a tremendous amount of progress in the time that they were there,” Peterson says. “We built their stay on what we had learned in previous non-MIT externships. Working without structure is unfair to students, so we made sure to maximize their time while they were there.”

Peterson initially connected with the program through his daughter, an MIT student who previously participated in an externship, and his MIT classmate David Birnbach SM ’89, a lecturer at MIT Sloan, who helped facilitate the interview process and connect NASDAQ with MIT.

“I was interested in helping facilitating work experiences for current students and I knew NASDAQ would be a perfect fit,” Birnbach says. “It was great to see how much impact they were able to make after starting at zero on day 1. Everyone was impressed with how cohesive they were as a group.”

A few months removed from IAP—and more than halfway through the spring semester—the MIT group has remained in touch and often connect on MIT campus.

“It was cool to work with other MIT students outside of classroom,” says Cen. “They definitely have a high amount of drive, which is something you might not see too many other places.”

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A couple by the Seine River, Paris (© Owen Franken)

A couple by the Seine River, Paris (© Owen Franken)

Curious about Owen Franken? View more of his work via the Franken Photo of the Week category, learn more in this profile, read a What Matters opinion column he wrote called “Life in Brownian Motion,” or visit his Web site.

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One-time MIT student Daniel Chester French sculpted John Harvard in the 1880s. Image: MIT News.

One-time MIT student Daniel Chester French sculpted John Harvard in the 1880s.

Anyone who has spent spring on campus should be familiar with the Patriots’ Day holiday, Boston’s unofficial beginning of spring and the date of the Boston Marathon since 1897.

Historically, Patriots’ Day honors the first military engagements of the American Revolution—the battles of Lexington and Concord, which took place about 10 miles west of Cambridge in 1775. The battle at Concord’s Old North Bridge is commemorated by The Minute Man, a statue in Concord sculpted by former MIT student Daniel Chester French, who would later become famous for sculpting the colossal marble statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.

French, who lived from 1850 to 1931, spent less than a year at MIT as a student in the late 1860s. According to Chesterwood.org, the website for his historic property in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he failed physics, algebra, and chemistry before leaving school to work and study with artists John Quincy Adams Ward and William Rimmer.

While his time as a student was unremarkable, French’s Cambridge legacy is permanent. In 1884, He sculpted the bronze sculpture of John Harvard in Harvard Yard that is a frequent target for MIT hackers, who have added a toilet stall door, a brass rat, and an “Ask Me about My Lobotomy” sign over the years.

One-time MIT student Daniel Chester French sculpted the Minute Man in 1875.

French sculpted the Minute Man in 1875.

About 10 years prior, he was commissioned to execute The Minute Man, his first major monument, and the statue was dedicated on the battles’ centenary on April 19, 1875. The seven-foot statue, which depicts a farmer armed with a rifle, launched his career. French spent parts of the next 15 years working in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York, Florence, and Paris.

By the turn of the 20th century, French was a sought-after artist based at Chesterwood, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. In 1903, he sculpted Continents, a massive four-part piece at the entrance of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City, which depicts four women symbolizing Asia, America, Europe, and Africa.

French produced more than 100 monuments, memorials, and other works during his career, and in 1914, he was selected to sculpt the Lincoln statue. The work took more than three years, and the finished piece, unveiled in 1922, elicited some controversy: some believe that Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s face is carved into Lincoln’s hair.

“What I wanted to convey was the mental and physical strength of the great war President and his confidence in his ability to carry the thing through to a successful finish,” French wrote in 1922.

John Harvard remains an immovable—and irresistible—pranking target, but some MITers believe the statue could be a hack itself. Because no photographic evidence exists to indicate what John Harvard actually looked like, an MIT urban legend persists that French modeled the statue after one of his former MIT classmates.

Perhaps it was a hack, cast in bronze?

An earlier version of this article appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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TechBreakfast

Image via @TechBreakfast

MIT’s alumni directory contains a lot of interesting job titles, but Ron Schmelzer ’97’s stands out as unique: Chief Event Wrangler.

Nope, he’s not a cowboy. Schmelzer wrangles for TechBreakfast, a monthly morning meetup founded by Schmelzer that demos new technologies and has connected thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs in more than a dozen U.S. cities.

Before starting TechBreakfast, Schmelzer was a Course 6 major-turned-serial entrepreneur who started his first company with an MIT classmate, Dan Housman ’95, in their Alpha Epsilon Pi dorm room.

Ron Schmelzer '97

Ron Schmelzer ’97

“Near the beginning of the dot-com boom, Dan and I started an internet software company,” he says. “We said, ‘Let’s try this e-commerce thing.’ So we built VirtuMall (later ChannelWave), one of the first e-commerce sites. We basically had to invent everything from scratch—shopping cart technology, credit card transactions—because none of it existed yet.”

By 1998, the internet’s popularity had exploded and ChannelWave had become a successful venture. After raising nearly $60 million in funding, Schmelzer and Housman sold the company to the larger Quick Commerce.

After ChannelWave’s sale, Schmelzer started the analyst firm ZapThink, among other ventures, which he sold in 2011 after he and his wife moved from Boston to Baltimore.

“When I got to Baltimore, I thought, ‘Well, I guess I need to start another software company,’” he says, “So I organized some small meet-ups in Baltimore to see what kind of startups people were working on. My only rule was no PowerPoint. That’s how TechBreakfast go started.”

The meetups quickly became popular and Schmelzer began expanding TechBreakfast out-of-state. Less than four years later, the monthly breakfasts have more than 12,000 active members in 13 U.S. cities. The meetup’s most recent event, “Ask a V.C.” in Boston on April 13, featured nearly 250 attendees who heard from two panels of more than 20 investors.

“TechBreakfast moved so fast that I actually put another software company I started, Bizelo, on hold,” he says. “I’m still in the startup industry. But instead of running a software company, I’m running TechBreakfast.”

Schmelzer spoke to Slice of MIT at the 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, where he was one of more than 100 MIT alumni who presented at the festival. He organized the TechBreakfast Spectacular—“basically TechBreakfast on steroids”—which featured 25 demos and more than 1,400 attendees. He also hosted SXSW’s first-release hardware meetup, a showcase of new internet-related demos that he called a “show-and-tell from grownups.”

“MIT has a great overlap on technology advancement and entrepreneurial innovation,” he says, “It’s a very supportive place for people who are creative and innovative. SXSW attracts the same audience, and people who are successful innovators and creators—like MIT alumni—tend to come here.”

For more about TechBreakfast, visit their website and follow @TechBreakfast on Twitter.

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What do serious science writers do for professional education? Come to MIT.

For 32 years, about a dozen science writers have join the community as Knight Science Journalism at MIT fellows each year. So far, that’s 320 journalists. For nine months, they get a fresh whiff of science-in-the-making through course work, field trips, and workshops, dig into emerging research, and learn skills such as audio storytelling.

You can learn about this year’s class of 11 journalists in interviews by Emily Hiestand, communications director of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, which is home base for the program. Here are excerpts from several interviews:

Scott Huler

Scott Huler

Scott Huler, author of six books, is taking a modern walking expedition through the Carolinas, retracing the 1700-era journey of explorer John Lawson and documenting it online.

How does the proliferation of social platforms—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook—and digital storytelling tools—embedded video, slideshows, podcasts—change the way you conceive of your work as a journalist?

I like to tell people I want to be like Batman: to have the complete utility belt, with every tool imaginable to do my job. My project this year has enabled me to do that. I designed the Lawson Trek website, and as I do my research and take my treks into the field, I update the site constantly. All these new tools and platforms are exactly why I’m able to retrace a 300-year-old journey yet keep the storytelling in the moment.

I’ve posted blogs from my tent on barrier islands, shared Instagram pictures from a canoe, produced and shared video from picnic tables. I think my 18th-century subject, John Lawson, would have used these tools had they been available. The whole point for him—and for me—was to learn what was out there and share that information. For him, that meant publishing a book eight years after his fact-finding journey. For me, it means a book, eventually…but also a steady flow of images, sounds, and impressions as I discover them.

Olga Dobrovidova

Olga Dobrovidova

Olga Dobrovidova is a news reporter and producer based in Moscow, Russia.

Does the practice of science journalism differ in Russia from the U.S. or is it similar?

I think the biggest distinction lies in the fact that most Russian scientists now have little-to-no incentive to talk to journalists. Media attention doesn’t help them get grant funding or personal perks—if anything, it can bring trouble—and the American sentiment that government-funded research institutions should be accountable to taxpayers is not one shared by either the Russian government or those taxpayers.

Add a lack of infrastructure for science communication (most Russian research institutes have neither press offices nor Public Information Officers), and it can be a very challenging environment for a journalist. Of course, this only makes the great Russian science journalists out there even greater.

Bob Young

Bob Young

Bob Young is a staff reporter at The Seattle Times, where he covers marijuana as Washington state creates history by legalizing production and sale of the drug.

What has been the focus of your research during your fellowship? Why is this issue important to you and for the public?

Legal marijuana is poised to spread across the US. Then what?

Partisans on both sides of this emotionally charged debate have demonstrated they will pounce on any science—and even distort it—to make their case. I aim to be a journalist, in the thick of the fray, who can tell what’s real and what’s myth, what’s correlation and what’s causation, especially in the realm of marijuana’s impact on the developing brains of teens.

From neuroscience classes to medical-evidence workshops—and much more—the MIT fellowship has propelled me toward my goal of becoming the best-informed reporter on the beat.

Read the full interviews and find links to the journalists’ work.

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