Health

William Linder

Bill Linder SM ’65, PhD ’68 has completed more than a dozen Ironman races.

In 1962, an MIT professor visited the graduate class of Bill Linder SM ’65, PhD ’68 graduate class at the industrial design school he was attending in Germany after leaving the U.S. Army. Linder, who had already earned a degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1956, was so impressed with the professor that he transferred to MIT to study civil and environmental engineering. The decision would profoundly shape his life both personally and professionally.

At MIT, Linder and his classmates worked on solving engineering issues with computers, a very new idea at the time. “It was civil engineering, but really, they were computer projects,” he says. “That was very remarkable.”

After graduating, Linder, who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, wanted to return home and teach at the University of South Carolina. Soon he was hired as the university’s first full-time computer science professor. After 12 years on the faculty, he went on to serve as a county treasurer, a computer consultant, and an adjunct professor before retiring in 2002, eager to pursue his new passion: Ironman competitions.

Ironman races consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. To date, Linder has completed more than a dozen Ironman races, including two Ironman World Championships, the race held annually in October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. When he competed in it last year, he was one of just five participants 80 or older. Unfortunately, a strong headwind derailed Linder and his fellow octogenarians. None of them finished the swim and bike portions within 10 hours and 30 minutes of starting, which would have qualified them to advance to the run. The wind was so strong Linder was sometimes riding his bike in his lowest gear, going only 4 or 5 m.p.h.

Years ago, he didn’t have to worry about finishing in time; he simply exerted all his energy and usually had hours to spare. But as he has aged, his slower pace has erased those extra hours. “There’s not much slack anymore,” he says.

Linder, however, remains undeterred. Now 81, he wants to become the oldest finisher of the Ironman World Championship. To do that, he will have to complete the race as an 82-year old next fall. “No one thought this was possible, that older people could do the Ironman. I want to keep it up as long as I can,” he says.

If he’s not swimming, biking, or running, Linder is probably at home in Columbia with Lynne, his wife of 47 years, or spoiling their three grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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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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FitBark_Romero_01

Canine Advisory Board member Romero models the device. Photo: FitBark

When activity trackers and wearable devices like Fitbit first became popular, many people jumped at the chance to measure their steps, quality of sleep, and calories burned. Davide Rossi MBA ’10, however, wondered how these devices could help him care for his dog. “I thought if it can be helpful for me, of course, it can be even more helpful for somebody who doesn’t talk,” Rossi remembers.

This idea compelled him to create FitBark, a wearable activity tracker for dogs. Like human devices, FitBark tracks time moving, at rest, and general behavior patterns, but the dog data is used in different ways. “The activity data set can tell you a lot more than just counting steps. You can see what kind of day your dog is having,” Rossi explains.

FitBark-Activity-Monitor-and-Mobile-App

FitBark works in connection with your smartphone. Photo: FitBark

The FitBark device, which snaps onto a dog’s collar, tracks your dog around the clock and transmits data to a smartphone app when it is in range of the FitBark. The data each FitBark device collects is compared to a baseline for your dog and other dogs of similar breeds and ages. From this information, Rossi says, you can see if your dog needs more exercise, is feeling sick, or is acting differently. “It’s possible to identify how your dog is reacting to a new product or drug or even if your dog has a medical problem,” he says.

Outside of tracking the health of your dog, Rossi says that the social aspect of the FitBark excites him most. “Social means having an app where I, my sister, my wife, and my vet can all comment and collaborate on hard data around the health of my dog,” he says.

Rossi says he has seen interest in FitBark from individual dog owners, doggie daycares, and pet supply stores. For now FitBark is marketed for dogs, but that doesn’t mean other pet owners aren’t taking note, “I’ve received requests for cats, bunnies, horses, cows, falcons, chickens, and for penguins,” Rossi laughs. “The device is ideally for dogs, but other pet owners may see benefits,” he says.

FitBark will be an exhibitor at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week. Sadly, no dogs are allowed on the show floor.

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What’s one thing MIT students can do to increase their well-being this winter break? Sleep, according to Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Affective Computing, Rosalind Picard SM ’86, ScD ’91. Picard is an instructor for MAS S63 Tools for Well Being, a course launched this past fall with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation aimed at better understanding how individuals can be healthier and happier.

“The course is our way to start learning about our health,” explains Picard. She says providing a semester-long credit course is important for students who need to make their time commitments count.  “People are interested in so much,” she says. “At MIT you have so much you have to do, you often only do what you have to do rather than you want to do.”

Tools for Well Being—a Media Arts and Sciences course—offers weekly lectures from researchers and experts on a range of topics including diet and nutrition, mental health, workplace well-being, and cognitive health. Another benefit is that the Wednesday lectures, on topics ranging from How to Measure Stress, Engagement, and Positive Affect to the Science of Workplace Fitness, are open to the public.

Picard recommends sleep as a first-step to wellbeing.

Picard recommends sleep as a first-step to well-being.

“This is the whole picture of well-being. It’s like a resilience guide. If you are going to drive yourself to maximum performance, what do you need to know?” she says.

The course—open to graduate and undergraduate students—also focuses on technology as it relates to well-being. Some class speakers have experience building and using technology for well-being—like Kevin Slavin Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab who previously worked in game development. The course culminates in a final project that requires students to design and prototype a tool for well-being. Past projects included a smart coupon model that would provide users with tailored coupons for healthy options and an app that assists in creating conversations to solve interpersonal conflicts at work.

Picard would like to see a smaller course focused on well-being as a requirement for undergrads, much like physical education is required.  She relates that though many courses may be interesting to students, taking courses outside of those required proves difficult for many.

“Students need to be as intelligent about their basic functioning as they are about bio and math. You must know how to take care of your own health so you can push yourself for four years and emerge strong and resilient,” she says.

A first step to increase that understanding is examining your sleep patterns, Picard says. As a recommendation to all students, the winter break is a great time to do this.

“Pay attention to how much sleep your body needs—that’s your natural rhythm. Figure out how to get closer to that when you get back to school,” she says.

Recorded lectures from Tools for Well Being are available to everyone.

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Grove Labs Towers

Grove Lab hopes its towers with become home centerpieces.

Every Thursday, the team at Grove Labs eats the fruits of their labor. They call it a Grove-grown lunch.

“From some of our prototypes, we’ve harvested a huge bowl of salad for our weekly team meetings,” said co-founder and CEO Gabe Blanchet ’13 of his company’s indoor aquaponic gardens, which grow fruits and vegetables and raise fish.

He and co-founder Jamie Byron ’13 launched Grove Labs over a year ago, but the idea really started  when they roomed together in the MIT chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity. Byron built an aquaponics prototype in their room, and the pair started harvesting lettuce, peas, and kale.

“I think we inspired people even with that janckety first fraternity room prototype that growing your own food and maintaining your own ecosystem where you live is really cool,” said Blanchet.

Grove has transformed that prototype into bookshelf-like wooden towers designed to be home centerpieces. The shelves house an aquarium and gardens capable of growing everything from salad greens to tomatoes at a rate 20-40 percent faster than conventional farming and using 80-90 percent less water.

A piping system allows water to flow from the aquarium to clay pebble grow beds. The beds are home to healthy bacteria that convert ammonia in the fish waste into nitrate, a natural plant fertilizer. As the plant roots absorb these nutrients, they clean the water that flows back to the fish tank. LED lights give plants the light they need and mimic the patterns of the sun—rosy in the morning, blue at noon, and golden at dusk.

Grove mock up

Mock up of how a Grove will look in the home.

The Grove staff, nearly half of whom are recent MIT graduates, are also launching a smart phone app to monitor temperature, water level, power usage, and the livelihood of a customers’ particular plants. Blanchet jokes the app “gives you a green thumb even if your thumb is black.” He adds, “we’re not afraid of using technology to bring people back to their roots.”

Blanchet and Byron’s own roots have been nourished by an entrepreneurial environment. Their fraternity has been home to a number of successful entrepreneurs—Genentech founder Robert Swanson ’69, SM ’70 and 170 Systems co-founder and Grove mentor Karl Buttner ’87 both frequented Sigma Chi. Three other companies have been started by other members of their 2013 class.

“When you have that culture you are bound to have unconstrained thinking about the possibilities,” recalled Blanchet. The pair also graduated from MIT’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator program, learning how to raise money, communicate, and recruit.

What’s next? “We’re taking natural ecosystems and shrinking them…eventually for space travel,” says Blanchet. But in the short term, you can grow your vegetables at home on earth.

Visit the GroveLabs site to learn more about the Boston Early Adopter Program they recently launched. 

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Guest blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE Technical Writer

Kathy MacLaughlin Dedieu MEng ’99 flew to China during the virulent SARS epidemic in 2003 for her first assignment with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF)

Dedieu worked in Ethiopia to prevent the spread of measles.

Dedieu worked in Ethiopia to prevent the spread of measles.

Thanks to her prior experience with the engineering firm CDM working on Superfund sites, she used her knowledge of safety precautions to teach others how to avoid spreading contamination. On subsequent assignments in Bangladesh, South Sudan, and Uganda, she specialized in water and sanitation needs as well as infectious disease control.

This past August, just days after she and her husband had relocated from Massachusetts to Paris, MSF called her up for the Ebola crisis in Liberia. She immediately flew to Monrovia, where MSF has its largest treatment center.

“There is basically almost no other health care happening in Monrovia,” she says. “My work was a bit of a mix with more infection control than actual Ebola experience, but still pretty darn interesting!” she wrote.

“My team looked at health structures, which have been either closed or are functioning on a very limited basis in this city of 1.3 million. As the epidemic worsened, more places closed and/or had health workers affected,” she said. “It was very striking to me to think about people with respiratory infections, malaria, or complicated pregnancies who had nowhere to go.”

Dedieu’s team recommended that MSF open a program to address the lack of health services, and the project has already started. With malaria a chronic threat, MSF will carry out mass distributions of treatments targeting 300,000 people. She said, “We will work on opening primary and secondary health care centers in Monrovia safely over the next few months through infection control training and ensuring proper water, sanitation and personal protective equipment (PPE) to the health care workers.”

Along with her duties as a water and sanitation engineer and PPE specialist, Dedieu also provided the vital logistics for setting up the mission with an office, warehouse, cars, and supplies.

Dedieu’s experience with emergency assistance began at MIT with “an inspiring class with Professor Jan Wampler in architecture about rebuilding Central America after the terrible damage caused by Hurricane Mitch. We designed some new housing for Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with drains and sewers, and we went down and presented it to the mayor.”

Later, while working in Hong Kong for CDM, Dedieu was involved in a fundraiser for MSF. Finding out that they needed engineers, “I went through the recruitment process, left my well-paying job and never looked back.” After working for MSF exclusively for some years, she became a recruiter and helped them choose their personnel.

Now back in Paris, Dedieu continues to work on Liberian health. She encourages other engineers to consider getting involved with MSF: “The experience is extraordinary. It’s impossible to feel more of use, and you absolutely get more than you give.”

Related topic: Learn about HealthMap, cofounded at Boston Children’s Hospital by Clark Freifeld SM ’10, to help track ebola and other infectious diseases, published in Spectrum.

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Ice bucket challenges are all the rage, raising awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the efforts to treat and cure the devastating neurodegenerative disease. On campus, President L. Rafael Reif and the mechanical engineering faculty recently took the chilly dunks—with a decidedly MIT turn. MechE head Gang Chen dedicated the challenge to the son of Professor John Heywood SM ’62, PhD ’65—Stephen Heywood, who died of ALS in 2006 and whose family has created an innovative model for ALS research.

James Heywood, right, and his nephew Alex pour cold water over Heywood parents John and Peggy as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Alex’s father, Stephen Heywood, passed away from ALS in 2006.

James Heywood, right, and his nephew Alex pour cold water over Heywood parents John and Peggy as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Alex’s father, Stephen Heywood, passed away from ALS in 2006.

The Heywood family banded together when Stephen got the grim diagnosis in 1999. Within months, Jamie Heywood ’91 had left his job in California, moved back East, and the family incorporated the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI), the world’s first non-profit biotech, in Professor Heywood’s basement with the goal of delivering therapeutics to patients quickly.

MIT was pivotal to starting ALS TDI and its approach, Jamie Heywood says. The first major investor in was Alex d’Arbeloff, then chair of the MIT Corporation, who regularly “schooled” Jamie on strategy and provided startup funds and connections to other donors. Jamie’s mechanical engineering training at MIT was also central to the plan, particularly lessons from manufacturing management and quality and his systems dynamics course, 2.03, which explored how to model common physical relationships in complex systems.

“What was obvious early on is that molecular biology operated by the same rules and you could apply systems dynamics modeling to machines and human bodies. Ironically, it’s the only really bad grade I got at MIT (I didn’t do the homework) yet dynamics is the lens through which I view research today,” he says.

ALS TDI has used a systems engineering and manufacturing sensibility to build a research organization that emphasizes quality, reproducible results, and industrial-scale experiments targeting ALS. “We did the first large scale longitudinal study of a mouse model, looking at RNA to see how the disease progressed in each organ over the lifespan. Today ALS TDI has the world’s largest integrated molecular longitudinal data set of neurodegenerative diseases in mice.”

Besides raising animal study standards, the company identified specific inflammation changes in ALS that enabled therapies now in trial and discovered that early physical changes occurred in the neuromuscular junction, rather than in the central nervous system, challenging long-held assumptions about the disease. Today, TDI is the largest dedicated ALS research lab in the world, a global leader in preclinical drug screening for ALS, and engaged in some 15 active partnerships with biotech/pharma companies.

Jamie Heywood at the Drug Information Association 50th anniversary meeting in June where PatientsLikeMe received the President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in World Health.

Jamie Heywood at a Drug Information Association meeting in June where PatientsLikeMe received the President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in World Health.

As ALS TDI took off, the Heywood team quickly understood that patients had much to learn from one another. Jamie, his brother Ben Heywood ’93, and Jeff Cole ’93, SM ’95, founded PatientsLikeMe to enable patients to share disease-specific experiences, treatments, and outcomes. Today PatientsLikeMe has grown into an online research network of more than 250,000 people, representing 2,000 diseases, who share information about symptoms, treatments, and coping mechanisms.

By drawing on patients’ actual experiences, data from PatientsLikeMe was used recently to refute a prior clinical trial that showed lithium could help people with ALS. “Today our ALS modeling capability is so powerful that we can, in some cases, predict the results of clinical trials while they’re going on,” Jamie says.

Yet the cure to ALS is still not at hand.

In “#IceBucketChallenge, Investing Well,” an opinion piece published in The Scientist on Sept. 10, Jamie points to the importance of proactive research that relies on scaled systems discovery and patient involvement. While PatientsLikeMe and ALS TDI focus on patient engagement, that’s not true of some other organizations. The Heywoods hope the Ice Bucket donations will target high-impact work to fight this intransigent disease.

“The Ice Bucket Challenge raised knowledge, awareness, money, and hope,” he wrote, “but there is still a long road for ALS patients who are still living with a deadly disease for which there is still essentially no treatment.”

Learn more at ALS TDI and PatientsLikeMe.

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Update: Missed the Twitter chat? Read a Storify recap of the event. 

How is hacking changing medicine, healthcare, and the process of innovation? Find out on Thursday, May 29, at 3 p.m. EDT, when the MIT Alumni Association hosts a Twitter chat with Andrea Ippolito SM ’12 and Allison Yost SM ’12, co-leaders of H@cking Medicine. Follow the chat at #MITAlum and tweet your own questions.

Alumnae Andrea Ippolito and Allison Yost speak at a recent hackfest. Photo: José Coluccio Jr.

Alumnae Andrea Ippolito and Allison Yost speak at a recent hackfest. Photo: José Coluccio Jr.

Ippolito and Yost designed this initiative of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship to bring together clinicians, entrepreneurs, and engineers at three-day hackathons to generate disruptive solutions to some of healthcare’s big challenges including global health, diabetes, and health IT.

“Many ideas happen after midnight,” said designer Nancy Liang in a Wall Street Journal article about a recent hackfest. Liang’s team came up with a prototype for MedSnap, a product that makes it easier for doctors to share images of patients’ ears and throats with specialists.

Participants at a recent hackfest. Photo: José Coluccio Jr.

Participants at a recent hackfest. Photo: José Coluccio Jr.

Other notable companies that have come out of past H@cking Medicine hackathons include Pillpack, an online pharmacy service that sends patients a two-week shipment of daily, pre-sorted pill packets dated and time stamped. Patients can tear off personalized packets from the company’s dispenser, and refills are managed through the service. Another hackathon company is Smart Scheduling, which predicts patient no shows to make day-to-day doctor’s appointments more efficient.

Since its start in 2011, H@cking Medicine has hosted a total of 2,000 people at its 16 hackathons. Notable ideas are selected by a panel of medical and tech experts and receive monetary awards.

Ippolito and Yost will tweet about how H@cking Medicine started, some of the resulting ideas, and how hacking culture can impact the world.

This event is co-sponsored by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Alumni Association.

 

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Nat_Cli_Ass_Icon

Read the full report.

Two MIT alumni provided a behind-the-scenes look at the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a document released May 6 by the While House. The report summarizes present-day and future impacts of climate change on the United States and predicts that U.S. average temperature could rise more than 4°F (2.2°C) over the next few decades and that flooding, wildfires, and droughts will increase.

Convening lead author John Walsh SM ’74, PhD ’79, professor and chief scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and contributing author Thomas Knutson SM ’89, research meteorologist at the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory spoke to Slice of MIT about their role in the report. Read the full interview or click on a question to jump to the response.

  1. Is there any reason to be optimistic about the future of Earth’s climate?
  2. What do you hope this report accomplishes?
  3. What surprises—if any—did you find in your research?
  4. What are the biggest variables for climate change in the future?
  5. What role did the White House play in putting the report together?
  6. Aside from the predicted rising temperatures and rising sea level, are there other areas that should merit more attention?
  7. What has been the response from skeptics of human-made climate change?
  8. What expectations do you have for this research going forward?

Is there any reason to be optimistic about the future of Earth’s climate?

Walsh: “In the long run, yes. We’re building an awareness of the seriousness of what’s happening right now. But the slope of awareness isn’t as large as we need. It doesn’t seem like we’ll get any action or policy changes over the next few years. It’s going to take more hits on the climate system before real action is taken. So I’m optimistic in the long term, pessimistic in the short term.” BACK TO TOP

What do you hope this report accomplishes?

John Walsh

John Walsh

Walsh: “Wake up the general public to the reality of climate change. If the public is behind some steps towards mitigation, I think that’s a good thing.

The report is not meant to make policy recommendations, but to inform policy and decision makers by presenting the best evidence and the best science that we can. We pointed out that there are risks associated with the current trajectory of Earth’s climate system.”

Knutson: “I hope readers will gain an appreciation for the various changes happening in the climate system and what types of changes scientists are pretty confident are resulting from human influence, versus other changes where scientists are not so confident.

It’s important not to lump all types of observed climate changes together. This information is meant to give the public, policymakers, and other scientists some guidance for what to expect as humans continue to increase the greenhouse forcing and further modify the earth’s climate. It’s important to give readers the best scientific evidence, no matter what direction it points.” BACK TO TOP

What surprises—if any—did you find in your research?

Walsh: “I was surprised by the decisiveness of the information—the high precipitation, the flood events, and the heat waves. Because of the major floods in the last year, that message came through quite effectively. The fact that we’ve had severe floods and major heat waves, in a way, really adds some punch to the whole assessment.”

Thomas Knutson

Thomas Knutson

Knutson: “Hurricanes and how they relate to climate change is a very tricky issue. It can be very different from temperature, where climate scientists are relatively confident that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases have led to most of the warming over the past half century. We don’t have the same situation for hurricane activity.

If you study U.S. landfalls of hurricanes from as far back as the late 1800s until now, there’s really no notable trend to report on. There is an increasing trend in hurricane activity since the 1970s, but that’s too short a period to tell us much about whether there is a century-scale trend or not.

Climate models that we use are suggesting that hurricanes will become slightly stronger—perhaps five percent more intense—by the end of the 21st century. For the Atlantic region, there may be fewer storms overall, but models suggest there will be more of the most intense Category 4 or 5 storms.” BACK TO TOP

What are the biggest variables for climate change in the future?

Walsh: “The rate of sea level rise. We’re confident that sea level will rise. But whether it will rise by one foot or four feet in the next 100 years is unclear.

The biggest uncertainty is what happens to the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and how much their loss of ice will contribute to sea level rise. We don’t understand the dynamics of these ice sheets and we don’t know how much they’ll contribute to sea level rise over the next few years.” BACK TO TOP

What role did the White House play in putting the report together?

Walsh: “Not a direct role. The White House drove the mandate to put this all together, which is now a living document that will live online. Everyone kept the politics at arm’s length. No one told us what to say or how to say it. They left it up to the scientists to put the package together.

The Executive Branch worked with the coordinating body, the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Federal agencies did review the report and their comments were addressed by the authors.” BACK TO TOP

Aside from the predicted rising temperatures and rising sea level, are there other areas that should merit more attention?

Walsh: “Yes, the pause in global warming. Overall temperatures have not increased in the last decade, but historical records have shown occasional decades of absence of warming. These things are a fact of life in the climate system.

In the climate science chapter, we gave a lot of attention to that particular issue. But it’s important to note that there was an unusually large uptake of heat in the ocean over the past decade or so.” BACK TO TOP

What has been the response from skeptics of human-made climate change?

Walsh: “I’ve interacted with them along the way. Evidence about the increase in heavy precipitation events and the increase and frequency of heat waves is something that many of them are now acknowledging in the realities of the data.” BACK TO TOP

What expectations do you have for this research going forward?

Knutson: “The past contains important clues for future. If we’re able to detect a strong trend in past tropical cyclone data, the fact that we can already detect such a trend gives us more confidence with a future protection of a similar trend. For instance, we know that we have had a rise in global mean temperatures since the 1870s. The reason we have so much confidence that global mean temperatures will continue to rise over the coming decades is because of our detection of long-term past rising changes.

There is not real strong evidence for past century-scale increases in hurricane activity though. One of the few regions where we see a trend is in Northeast Australia, where the trend has been downward. But our data records are relatively limited, so there is still a lot of uncertainty on how tropical cyclones changed in various regions over the past century as the climate warmed. This is one reason why we are somewhat cautious in our statements about future expected changes in tropical cyclone activity.” BACK TO TOP

 

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Wives and husbands often relocate to satisfy one or the other’s careers. They may take pay cuts to do so, face unemployment, or interrupt graduate studies. These compromises are often an unspoken wedding vow.

Few couples embark on the type of radical journey that Eric Minikel SM ’10, MCP ’10 is traveling with his wife, Sonia Vallabh, who learned in 2011 that she has a rare genetic disease that often results in early death.

Eric Minikel and Sonia Vallabh. Photo: Jason Grow.

Eric Minikel and Sonia Vallabh. Photo: Jason Grow.

Minikel vowed to join Sonia in a race against time. He quit his job in urban planning to pursue an entirely different career path: genetics. Sonia, a lawyer, did the same. The two started studying biology and networked with science and biotech friends in Cambridge.  They sought and found entry-level jobs at Mass General’s Center for Human Genetic Research. They founded a nonprofit to raise funds for clinical trials and spread the word of the rare disease.

This fall, the two will begin PhDs at Harvard Medical School.

“We’re in love, and since learning that Sonia carries a fatal genetic disease, we’ve changed everything in our lives,” says Minikel. “Next, we want to change history.”

The disease in question is fatal familial insomnia (FFI), one of the rarest of genetic prion diseases. After Sonia’s mother died of it at an early age, the couple decided to get her tested for the gene, only to find out that she had it too. It strikes, on average, at age 49, and death usually follows within a year.

Given that FFI is so rare, they have not yet worked on it in their roles at MGH. “I work on neuromuscular disease genetics, and she works on Huntington’s disease,” Minikel says. “Both of these have been good jumping off points to start learning the science, which we will eventually apply to FFI.”

Fortunately, at MIT’s Whitehead Institute, Professor Susan Lindquist has made FFI and prion diseases a specialty. Lindquist created the first mouse trial of the disease, which has provided Eric and Sonia with valuable data. “She was also very generous in letting Sonia sit in on her protein-folding class when Sonia was first beginning to learn biology,” adds Minikel, “and she’s offered to collaborate with us in the future as we begin our PhDs.”

What about urban planning? Minikel says he uses the skill-set he acquired at MIT every day.

“My thesis was on analyzing bicycle-accident data, and I worked with my advisor, Professor Joe Ferreira, on an analysis of Massachusetts vehicle accident and insurance data. In the course of this, I learned to code in R and to manage SQL databases, both hard skills that I use every day now in the bioinformatics world. More broadly, writing my thesis taught me how to frame and answer a research question, which has been invaluable.”

“As a lifelong lover of cities,” he adds, “I was reluctant to give up the career in city planning that I had just begun. But in fact, our journey into science has proven to be an inspiring demonstration of what makes cities—and Boston in particular—amazing.”

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