Engineering

NinaTandon, EpiBone

Tissue-engineered bone, EpiBone

Bone-related surgeries, undertaken by nearly one million patients in the US each year, can fail due to unsuccessful integration of prosthetic or donor bone implants. Nina Tandon SM ’06 is working to solve this problem by growing human bone from the cells of the patient.

Tandon, CEO of EpiBone, leads the New York City-based company that is the first to grow human bones from stem cells, delivering custom-made bones. Not only are the bones more likely to integrate into the body because they are living, compatible bone, but also because they are created based on a CT scan of the target area and are made to fit exactly. “What we’re really proposing is a different view of the body,” says Tandon. “To view it as a renewable resource of stem cells that can regenerate new parts as you need them.”

Nina Tandon, EpiBone

Nina Tandon SM ’06 (right) in the lab at EpiBone

Tandon, who co-founded the EpiBone project two years ago, has spent the greater part of the past 10 years studying and testing bone and organ regrowth—and it all started at MIT.

As a graduate student studying bioelectrical engineering, Tandon did a research rotation with world-renowned professor and tissue engineering research scientist Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic.

“It was through the work I did at MIT with Gordana that I realized the power of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine and the way it would change medicine forever,” says Tandon. “By engineering human tissue and cells from their own human stem cells, we can change the way medicine is done. Whether it’s organ donation or drug testing, we can make the medicine fit the individuals.”

At EpiBone, Tandon works every day in the lab to perfect their method. With the technology in place, they have successfully grown bone and are in the testing stages. With one pilot study completed and another to begin this spring, they hope to be done with pre-clinical trials in the next three years and get on the path of FDA approval to bring their technology to market.

“I can’t wait for the day when someone who needs a transplant doesn’t have to wait on a list,” says Tandon. “And I’m hoping our research can get us one step closer to that day.”

A Fulbright Scholar, Tandon completed her PhD and an MBA at Columbia University. She is a senior TED fellow and co-author of Super Cells: Building with Biology, a book that explores the new frontier of biotech. Tandon was recently named one of CNN’s “7 ‘tech superheroes’ to watch in 2015.

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Brint Markle, AvaTech, MIT Alumnus

Photo credit: Philipp Becker

An increase in avalanche deaths has paralleled the rise in recreational backcountry activities in recent decades. Although avalanches can happen unexpectedly, many of the warning signs can be detected. Key risk factors include recent rain or snowfall, visible cracking and sounds of shifting terrain, extreme temperature changes, and weak layers of snow in the snowpack. These weak layers can often cause an avalanche when no other signs are present and they are the most difficult to detect with basic manual tests, such as digging snow pits and feeling layers, which offer only subjective insight.

After Brint Markle MBA ’14 had a close call in 2010 while skiing with friends in Switzerland, he wanted to know much more than the surface characteristics of snow. With this goal in mind, he enrolled in the Sloan School of Management.

SP1 Probe, AvaTech

The SP1 Probe, created by MIT alumni

While at MIT, Markle teamed up with Jim Christian SM ’14 and Sam Whittemore ’14 to form AvaTech, a company focused on proactive avalanche safety that starts with a better understanding of snow. Their first product is the SP1 probe, which was launched in September and was recognized as a National Geographic Gear of the Year for 2014 and one of the Top 100 Innovations of the Year by Popular Science. The probe is inserted into snowpack and reads the characteristics of the layers through numerous sensors—determining hardness, resistance, slope angle, aspect, GPS orientation, and ultimately detecting weak layers that could cause slides. Along with the SP1 probe, they also launched AvaNet, a cloud platform that helps backcountry travelers share critical snowpack and avalanche safety data all across the world.

The product is being marketed to professionals and forecasters, helping to make their evaluations of snow safety more informed. “The snowpack is really complex,” says Whittemore, “and we want the SP1 to make it much easier for the people out there in the backcountry to assess how the snow changes in space and time.”

Brint Markle, AvaTech, SP 1 Probe, Himalayas

Markle (right) tests the SP1 in the Himalayas, Feb. 2015. Photo credit: Brennan Lagasse.

Today Markle, who is AvaTech’s CEO, Christian, the lead product designer, and Whittemore, the lead engineer, are based in Park City, Utah, the most popular backcountry locale in the US. From there, they travel around the world demonstrating their product. For much of February, Markle has been working with the SP1 and AvaNet in the Alps and the Himalayas. “We’ve spent the last two years validating our technology with leading industry professionals,” says Markle. “Today, we have more than 400 organizations from 35 countries sharing data on the platform, spanning ski patrol, guiding companies, forecast centers, departments of transportation, snow scientists, and other snow professionals.”

Up to this point, most research and development in the avalanche field has been focused on equipment and devices to save individuals already caught in an avalanche, but a more technical understanding of avalanche prevention could truly revolutionize the industry.

Originally, the vision of the company was focused on developing the first proactive avalanche safety technology in the world, says Markle. But they have come to realize that the SP1 is the cornerstone of a much broader information sharing platform. “We talk about building a global mountain community that can share information in real time to benefit the safety of all mountain travelers. That to us, is extremely powerful.”

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Like many graduate students, Gwen Sisto SM ’10 worked on a startup while at MIT. Unlike many MIT students, this startup wasn’t in biotech, software, or technology. Sisto’s startup makes weightlifting shoes.

“Whenever I told someone I had a startup they would get excited. When I told them it was shoes they would stop talking to me,” she remembers.

Sisto-Lift

Sisto competing. Photo: Gwen Sisto

Sisto—an aerospace engineer and Olympic-style weightlifter—and her husband weightlifting coach Ivan Rojas founded Risto Sports in 2008 to serve what they saw as an untapped market, Olympic-style weightlifters.

Sisto and Rojas came up with the idea for Risto Sports while training for the 2008 Olympic trials. “We were training and realized there was really only one brand of weightlifting shoes for the lifters to buy,” she says. “Our initial mission was to be a service to the weightlifting community and bring high-quality shoes.”

Sisto used her deep understanding of weightlifting and engineering to create the best shoes for weightlifters. “I can take my experience in both worlds and try to come up with something more high-tech and more sophisticated,” she says. “It’s an extremely technical sport, so you really need the right equipment.”

Risto Sports Classic weightlifting shoe. Photo: Risto Sports

This expertise made Risto Sports a favorite among lifters and helped create the shoes’ defining characteristic—a wood heel. Sisto explains that wood doesn’t mean low-tech, “We did a lot of materials testing to find the right wood and all these technical specifications. A lot of thought goes into the product using my engineering background.”

Sisto hopes her technical and personal approach to weightlifting shoes will help to change the industry. “There’s a lot of nepotism and snake oil salesmen in the weightlifting world in products and training. Somebody’s got to change that and who better than a rocket scientist?” she says.

Aside from working as an engineer and trying to change the weightlifting world, Sisto is also working on personal goals—she’s currently training for the 2016 Olympic trials.

 

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Jeff_Lieberman

Jeff Lieberman ’00, SM ’04, SM ’06

Through his undergraduate studies, roboticist Jeff Lieberman ’00, SM ’04, SM ’06 balanced his passions for math and science—and for art. “I’d spend four hours a day on math, and then another four hours on art,” says Lieberman, who completed a double major in physics and mathematics. “I knew it would be hard to learn quantum mechanics during art school, so I chose MIT and did art as a hobby.”

After graduation he enrolled in the Media Lab for graduate school, and those passions finally intertwined. He joined the robotics group headed by Associate Professor Cynthia Breazeal, SM ’93, ScD ’00, and worked on art-science hybrids like the Cyberflora, an installation of robotic flowers for New York’s Cooper Hewitt museum that algorithmically generated music and lighting based on viewers’ behavior.

“It was like MIT’s fire hose metaphor,” he says of the design process for that project. “On day one, they said ‘You have eight months to build this—then it’s going in the Smithsonian in February.’ It was the most fun I had at MIT.”

Lieberman has parlayed his Media Lab experience into an eclectic career as a roboticist and artist specializing in kinetic optical illusions. His works include Patterned by Nature, a 90-foot-long sculpture that weaves through the atrium of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The sculpture, made of 3,600 tiles of LCD glass whose brightness can be individually controlled, displays nature-inspired animated patterns created by varying the glass’s transparency.

“The pieces that I work on, they work because of the limits of human perception,” he says. “When you take advantage of the fact that those limits exist, you can see things in a totally different way.”

Patterned by Nature. Image via bea.st.

Patterned by Nature. Image via bea.st.

Lieberman also mixed art and science as the host of the Discovery Channel’s Time Warp, which ran for 33 episodes in 2008–2009. The show introduced physics by using slow-motion photography to examine everyday events like a soap bubble popping or a dog drinking water.

“It was a great experience, but I tried too hard to insert science facts,” he says. “If an explanation lasts more than seven or eight seconds, it can’t be used on TV. It was tough to come to terms with that.” (Visit the Discovery Channel website to view Time Warp video clips.)

Lieberman’s current project—which will be financed entirely through crowdfunding—blends high-speed imaging with human perception: he’s creating a small, water-based sculpture that uses strobe lights to simulate water droplets moving at glacial speeds.

As for the future, Lieberman hopes to combine his robotics expertise with a new passion: meditation.

“I’d like to mix the worlds of science and physics with the world of consciousness and spirituality,” he says. “Meditative practice can link science and consciousness. It’s the next big scientific revolution, and it’s just starting to bubble.”

For more information on Lieberman, visit his website, bea.st. This article was originally published in MIT Technology Review magazine. 

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Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, the 2015 MIT Commencement speaker. Watch the June 5 webcast.

Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88 has been named the 2015 MIT Commencement speaker. Watch the June 5 webcast. Photo: Joi Ito

Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, the newly installed chief technology officer (CTO) of the United States, is coming home to MIT once again. This time as the June 5, 2015, Commencement speaker. After earning two degrees and serving two stints on the MIT Corporation, she certainly knows the campus layout.

And she knows the issues facing technology creators and entrepreneurs. Until her White House appointment, she served as a VP of New Business Development at Google, initiating partnerships and acquiring the Google Earth, Google Maps, and Picasa platforms.

Smith was on the leadership team of the famously secretive Google[x] project. Many MIT alumni work on that project, including Mike Cassidy ’85, SM ’86 and Rich DeVaul SM ’99, PhD ’04. Their Project Loon aims to use solar- and wind-powered balloons to connect remote areas to the Internet. She also co-created the Solve For <X> project that invites inventors to “accelerate progress on technology moonshots.”

In a 2007 Technology Review profile, Smith noted that as an MIT mechanical-engineering student, she built a solar car and drove it in the first Cross-Continental Solar Car race across the Australian outback. “I loved all my time at MIT,” she said, which included serving as a young alumni member of the MIT Corporation from 1988 to 1993 and later on visiting committees. In 2006 Smith rejoined the MIT Corporation and resigned earlier this year.

Smith arrived at Google from PlanetOut, an interactive media company and series of web sites serving the gay and lesbian community; she was COO and then CEO until 2001. Earlier she worked at Apple Computer Japan in Tokyo, where she developed the multimedia market. She served as product design lead and then as manager of General Magic, an Apple Computer spinoff devoted to developing a PDA precursor.

As CTO, Smith guides the President’s technology policies and initiatives such as using technology to help create jobs, reduce health care costs, keep the nation secure, and increase access to broadband. In her new role, she joins the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, headed by John P. Holdren ’65, SM ‘66.

Learn more about Smith in a MIT News piece. Or about  learn about the history of MIT Commencement speakers.

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Guest blogger: Stephanie Eich, Continuum

Using the same flexible plastic sheets that children use to make Shrinky Dinks, researchers at MIT and Harvard have devised a robot that can assemble itself—and then walk away on its own.

Self-folding robot in action.The unique little ‘bots come to life by combining the principles of origami, the Japanese paper-folding art, and electrical engineering. The body is made of simple, inexpensive materials: paper coated with a plastic material that shrinks when heated; the electronics are embedded between two sheets of the paper. In about four minutes, the flat sheet folds itself into shape and scuttles away on its four crab-like legs.

Researchers announced their new Transformer-like robot in a recent paper published in Science. Led by Harvard graduate student Sam Felton, the paper was co-authored by Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and MIT professor of computer science and engineering Erik Demaine.

The team imagines a variety of uses for the robots, including search and rescue missions and space exploration or even simply toys to entertain your cat. That the ‘bots can be transported anywhere in lightweight, flat packages and quickly assembled makes them especially attractive.

“The big dream is to make robots fast and inexpensive,” said Rus, Today, it takes many years and lots of money to make a robot. We may be able to reduce design time to a matter of hours.”

Rus and Demaine have collaborated on other robotics projects. Earlier this year, they presented a method for “oven-baked robots.” Demaine is an expert on the mathematics of origami, a perfect complement to Rus’s work with programmable matter.

The self-folding mobile prototype developed by researchers at MIT and Harvard. Photo: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

The self-folding mobile prototype developed by researchers at MIT and Harvard. Photo: Harvard’s Wyss Institute.

“It’s very exciting because there is always work to be done between theory and devices,” Rus says. “I make robots and love theory, and Erik proves theorems and loves mechanisms. In order for this research to work, you need people who are of the same mind about what is important.”

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Image: Sosolimited and The Atlantic

Image: Sosolimited and The Atlantic

The MIT alumni who founded the art and technology studio Sosolimited are experts at visualization. They used the Empire State Building to display Super Bowl predictions, transformed a chandelier into a global data map, and turned the London Eye into a massive mood ring at the 2012 Olympics.

But their most recent task was much more abstract: visualizing a thrill. In the November issue of the Atlantic, the studio teamed up with Porsche and Atlantic Re:think, the magazine’s creative group, to visualize the heart beats, breathing rates, and acceleration of 25 drivers behind the wheel of a Porsche Macan—speeding more than 100 miles per hour—on a closed 1.5-mile course.

“A lot of our projects are on the border between data visualization and artistic interpretations,” says Sosolimited’s Eric Gunther ’00, MEng ’02. “This one was definitely on the artistic interpretation side.”

Each driver wore a high-tech t-shirt that measured heart beats, breathing rates, and body movement. The Sosolimited team—which also includes Justin Manor ’00, SM ’03 and John Rothenberg ’02, SM ’07—then combined millions of data points with information from GPS devices plotted along the course.

“Once we had the data, our biggest challenge was to bring enough legibility to our designs so people could understand what was happening,” Gunther says. “I don’t think any of us actually knew what the data would look like.”

The end result was a racetrack-like design that used colors to contrast upticks in heart rate and respiration with car acceleration and hair pin turns.

Art of the Thrill,” The Atlantic

“You can see someone coming around a corner and their heart rate spikes or they start to breathe heavily,” said Wade Aaron, a designer at Sosolimited. “When you trace their data over the track, you end up with this really unique fingerprint of their experience on the racetrack.”

In addition to the snake-like data designs for all 25 drivers, Sosolimited also displayed a collection of individual still images that track heart and breathing rates plus the acceleration and positions of the cars.

porsche_sosolimited_2

A depiction of all drivers transitioning from a straightaway to a tight corner. Image via Sosolimited and The Atlantic

In the image below, according to The Atlantic, the blue, pink and green colors depict the heart rate, and the outer translucent form represents breathing rate. When the shapes expand, the driver is experiencing the “thrill” of a 120 miles-per-hour joy ride.

“We wanted a complex image that would still be pretty elegant,” Gunther says. “In the end, by playing with different mathematical mappings, we were able to let the data speak for itself.”

Visit The Atlantic Re:think website to learn more about the project and see all the images, data, and videos associated with the project.

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At last week’s Xploring Space Twitter Chat, Emily Calandrelli SM’13 and Astronaut Cady Coleman ’83 tweeted about space, life at MIT, and inspiring more young women to enter STEM fields.

The two alumnae met while Calandrelli, host of Xploring Outer Space, was filming an episode on astronaut training at the Johnson Space Center. They even shared a ride on the Zero G “Vomit Comet”.

Coleman has spent more than 180 days in space and participated in three missions. As the host and technical curator of Xploring Outer Space, Calandrelli highlights research on Mars, space travel, and astronaut life in the weekly television show.

From the Infinite Corridor to Hollywood
The chat started off with Calandrelli sharing how Xploration is attempting to inspire K-12 and her path from MIT to host of the weekly show.

Flying in Space: Tweets from an Astronaut
Coleman advised actress Sandra Bullock on her performance as an astronaut for the 2013 movie Gravity. She shared some of the tips she gave to Bullock, and Calandrelli joined in with their experience riding the Zero G shuttle.

Coleman also shared why she grew her hair out before her missions.


Inspiring K-12 in STEM
Both alumnae discussed the state of women in STEM and offered suggestions for inspiring more women to pursue the field.  

It Takes a Village

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Felice Frankel, an extraordinary science photographer and MIT research scientist, is making an offer you should not refuse. Through OpenCourseWare (OCW), Frankel is offering to teach you how make exquisitely detailed digital images with a commonplace tool, the flatbed scanner.

Close-up of an agate taken with a high resolution scanner. Photo: Felice Frankel.

Close-up of an agate taken with a high resolution scanner. Photo: Felice Frankel.

In fact, she will teach you how to make 3D images in the OCW course, RES.10-001 Making Science and Engineering Pictures. And, of course, OCW is free.

Although Frankel uses highly technical equipment, she invites you to “start with the easy stuff”—using a flatbed scanner to make very fine images of 3D objects like microfluidic devices, agates, and the contents of petri dishes. Manipulations are experimental more than technical since scanners typically use a single unadjustable light source that moves across the scanning plane in a single direction.

“Most of this is about experimenting or, in a way, playing,” Frankel says. “The process, I hope, will become an act of discovery as it did for me when I made these images. You think of this process in a similar way as you do your own investigations. Using this scanner can … come close to imaging with a microscope if you make sure to capture your image at a high-enough resolution.”

Frankel, who works at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering and several MIT departments, has published her work in National Geographic, Nature, Science, and Scientific American. She is the author, most recently, of Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers.

The OCW course includes four demonstration videos on the basics, such as dealing with reflected and transmitted light. Two other how-to tutorials work on digitally replacing a background and sharpening an image. The videos will be part of a more in-depth course to be offered via MITx in 2015.

Learn what else is new at OCW.

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Guest Post by Sarah Jensen from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

As with almost any word, it all depends how far you go back in time for your definition…

NASA's J-2X rocket engine takes a Halloween plunge into an icy cauldron of liquid nitrogen. Photo: Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne

NASA’s J-2X rocket engine takes a Halloween plunge into an icy cauldron of liquid nitrogen. Photo: Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne

As technologies and devices evolve, language must stay on its toes if we expect to understand each other when we talk about them. English-speakers are particularly flexible at adapting to progress. They’re willing to coin new terms, modify old meanings, and allow words that are no longer useful to pass from common usage. “The etymologies of ‘motor’ and ‘engine’ reflect the way language evolves to represent what’s happening in the world,” says MIT Literature Professor Mary Fuller.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “motor” as a machine that supplies motive power for a vehicle or other device with moving parts. Similarly, it tells us that an engine is a machine with moving parts that converts power into motion. “We use the words interchangeably now,” says Fuller. “But originally, they meant very different things.”

“Motor” is rooted in the Classical Latin movere, “to move.” It first referred to propulsive force, and later, to the person or device that moved something or caused movement. “As the word came through French into English, it was used in the sense of ‘initiator,’ ” says Fuller. “A person could be the motor of a plot or a political organization.” By the end of the 19th century, the Second Industrial Revolution had dotted the landscape with steel mills and factories, steamships and railways, and a new word was needed for the mechanisms that powered them. Rooted in the concept of motion, “motor” was the logical choice, and by 1899, it had entered the vernacular as the word for Duryea and Olds’ newfangled horseless carriages.

“Engine” is from the Latin ingenium: character, mental powers, talent, intellect, or cleverness. In its journey through French and into English, the word came to mean ingenuity, contrivance, and trick or malice. “In the 15th century, it also referred to a physical device: an instrument of torture, an apparatus for catching game, a net, trap, or decoy,” says Fuller. Read more

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.

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