Research

At MIT, applying theories and skills through hands-on projects has been an educational theme from the very beginning—one which takes unique shape in forge, foundry, and glassblowing activities in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). This week, MIT celebrated new opportunities in this area. On Monday, the renovated space was reopened as the W. David Kingery Ceramics and Glass Laboratory and the Merton C. Flemings Materials Processing Laboratory, thanks to the generosity of several generous donors.

In the updated facilities, additional space and equipment allows for more participation at all levels, something that students and alumni alike who vie for the chance to use the labs appreciate.

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Chris Moore (left) working in the glass lab in the 1990s.

Chris Moore ’90, PhD ’96, was one of the lucky students who got to spend countless hours in the glass lab and helped make it what it is today. Moore started at the glass lab in January 1987 when he took a course during IAP and became one of the labs most supportive and active volunteers.

“There was a lot of interest in glassblowing glasses at MIT so I worked with Professor Michael Cima to rebuild the space with new equipment that better suited glassblowing. I took classes and was involved in building and maintaining equipment, cleaning factory-scrap glass before putting it in the furnace, and worked as Ms. Hazelgrove’s assistant one afternoon a week for more experience. I stayed at MIT until 1996, earning a bachelor’s and a Ph.D. in physics and was involved in the glass lab during my entire MIT career.

“Being a physicist, I was very interested in the physics and optics of the process and in particular in the process of glassblowing rather than just the completed pieces. Having the opportunity to imagine interesting and beautiful creations using the optical properties of the glass and then solving the physical challenges of making them happen in glass, gave me practice in integrated design and problem solving that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else in my education. I also have enjoyed the tight teamwork required in glassblowing and have made lifelong friendships in the lab.”

Moore, a former astrophysicist and veteran data science leader, is chief analytics officer at True Fit and continues his involvement in the glass lab, including helping to run the annual Pumpkin Patch event.

See the new space in action in a video from the School of Engineering.

Read more about the renovation of the Materials Processing Lab and the Ceramics and Glass Lab.

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Jonathan Levene 4.13.15

Jonathan Levene ’97, MEng ’98

Jonathan Levene ’97, MEng ’98 is a Boston-based career coach specializing in engineering leadership and career development. Levene recently advised alumni interested in working in startup world in a live Lunch and Learn webinar hosted by the Alumni Association. As a follow up, Levene answered three questions for alumni interested in transitioning from the corporate sector to a startup.

What factors should be considered when deciding if a move to the startup world is the right choice for you and your career?

I recommend clarifying what you’re seeking in terms of an ideal work experience and then investigating how well this maps to a startup experience. For your ideal work experience, think of three favorite projects from the past few years that you led. Pick ones in which you felt most energized and would like to replicate.

Next, assess how well the mindsets and behaviors you demonstrated in your chosen projects align with those that startups typically value. Use the following questions as a guide.

To what degree did you demonstrate the following mindsets during the projects?

  • Building a vision for success
  • Embracing uncertainty
  • Learning through experimentation
  • Accepting change (such as a change in direction) when it arose
  • Resourcing creatively (“begging, borrowing, or stealing”)
  • Motivating others
  • Influencing the views of senior management or peers

To what degree did you demonstrate the following behaviors during the projects?

  • Being open to others’ ideas, opinions, and feedback
  • Straight talking, speaking factually and truthfully on key issues
  • Engaging others in a positive way, avoiding blame and resolving conflicts quickly
  • Being accountable through strong commitments, follow-through, and requests
  • Effective decision making involving others by evaluating data, exploring options and opinions, and creating consensus
  • Realizing innovative ideas through a bias for action

What advice do you have for being mentally and financially prepared for moving to a position with (or founding) a startup?

 In small companies, particularly those under 50 employees, you are freed from a lot of the process that slows innovation and hampers creativity at larger companies. Many people also find that there is greater acceptance of new ideas and organizational support for realizing them through one’s own initiative.

It is important to anticipate that you’ll need to embrace uncertainty, accept change when it comes, and resource creatively. It’s not uncommon in startups under 50 employees for sudden change to result in new priorities. This means that technology you create today may need to be quickly altered, released, or sometimes even scrapped down the road. It’s important not to be overly attached to what you build or have too-high a quality standard.

You’ll also be exposing yourself to greater financial risk as a result of this uncertainty. You can plan for this by calculating the number of months you might be unemployed if the company goes under, and setting aside the required number of months of salary.

What are some common shocks that may occur when transitioning from corporate to startup? How can you prepare for these?

Many people aren’t prepared for the lack of onboarding when they start. You should expect that you’ll need to pull information from people and be a self-starter. If you’re considering a move to a startup, it will help to spend some time learning about another technology or product that your company has that is new to you. Practice pulling knowledge out of others’ heads.

Another shock can sometimes be the intense cross-functional exposure. For example, it’s not uncommon in startups under 50 employees for engineering to work closely in sales. If you haven’t had experience with this, you can expect to encounter different aspirations, values, and norms in sales – in short, a different culture. Call up a peer in one of these functions and learn about what they’re up to and what is challenging for them.

Levene has 15 years of experience leading product development teams in Boston-area startups and serves as an executive coach at Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development.

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Edith Clarke first female electrical engineer

Edith Clarke SM ’19

Even after becoming the first woman to earn her master’s in electrical engineering from MIT, Edith Clarke SM ’19 was having trouble getting a job in her field. But she didn’t let that stop her. She took a position for General Electric as a supervisor of computers, a position she was vastly overqualified for, and used her spare time to invent the graphical calculator, applying for a patent in 1921. The device, approved in 1925, was used to solve electric power transmission line problems and for Clarke, this was just the beginning.

“There is no demand for women engineers, as such, as there are for women doctors; but there’s always a demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work,” she said. And her work would prove its worth.

Not only was Clarke the first female electrical engineer, she was the first female to hold a professional position as an electrical engineer in the US, and the first female professor of electrical engineering. Clarke also developed mathematical methods that simplified and reduced the work of electrical engineers, published 18 technical papers, and her textbook Circuit Analysis of A-C Power Systems became the standard for the industry in her time.

After a long career at GE, earning an engineering role in 1923, she retired in 1945 and spent the next 10 years teaching electrical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. She died in November 1959 in Baltimore.

Although Clarke struggled as a female in a male-dominant career in the early 1900s, she eventually gained recognition and respect from her peers and has since been recognized.

This year’s National Inventors Hall of Fame will induct 14 individuals, including Clarke. The National Inventors Hall of Fame recognizes monumental individuals whose innovations are crucial to our lives, highlighting their contributions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The event will be held from May 11-13 in Washington, DC.

Edith Clarke first female engineer, graphical calculator

Photo: Edith Clarke’s graphical calculator. Image credit: NIHF

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04.07.15 Matt-Lieber

Gimlet Media co-founder Matt Lieber MBA ’12.

If you have been paying attention to the podcast renaissance sparked by the 2014 hit Serial, you may already know Matt Lieber MBA ’12. As the co-founder of Gimlet Media, Lieber and his podcast company have turned their focus on their own evolution in the innovative podcast series StartUp.

StartUp, which garners an audience averaging around 120,000 listens per episode, is one of the first products of Gimlet Media, the brain child of This American Life contributor Alex Blumberg, who cofounded the company with Lieber.

Missteps, fundraising, and frustrations are all shared in the podcast that aims to give a real look at what it’s like to launch a startup—and not just the successful fairytale version. Following this format, listeners were first introduced to Lieber in Episode 2 of the series as Blumberg worked to woo Lieber into his co-founder role. A few awkward conversations about money later, Lieber was onboard.

Though Lieber burst onto the podcast and startup scene in unique fashion, his path to it was hardly random. Lieber spent years working for public radio, completed his MBA at Sloan in 2012, and was working as a management consultant for Boston Consulting when Blumberg tapped him to help launch his new startup.

Lieber will be joining us for a #MITAlum Twitter chat on Friday April 10 at 11:30 a.m. EDT. He will be talking about startup fundamentals, the podcast renaissance, and what it’s like sharing your startup challenges and successes with an audience each week. Follow along on Twitter starting at 11:30 a.m. EDT and ask questions using the #MITAlum hashtag.

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Ben Glass '08, SM '10

Ben Glass ’08, SM ’10

As an aspiring rocket scientist, Ben Glass was thrilled to get a Course 16 undergraduate internship at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company. It was, he says, a fantastic experience at a great organization, but his main lesson was less about technology than about himself.

“I realized I’d be a terrible fit at a big company,” he recalls. That realization, and a longtime interest in clean energy, propelled Glass into his current role as cofounder, CEO, and CTO of Altaeros Energies, a four-year-old startup based in Somerville, Massachusetts, seeking to commercialize airborne wind turbines that can bring steady, economical electricity to remote communities and industrial sites.

Altaeros’s tethered helium-filled balloon, or aerostat, lifts a turbine as high as 600 meters, tapping into high-altitude winds that are more consistent and stronger than ground-level winds.

Video via Altaeros Energy on YouTube

“Remote sites usually depend on diesel generators; the power typically costs 30 to 35 cents per kilowatt-hour, and can go over 50 cents,” compared to an on-grid national average of just under 11 cents, explains Glass. “Our first 30-kilowatt product should be extremely competitive at the most remote sites, and we’ll quickly scale to a 200-kilowatt system that will be the lowest-cost option at almost any site using diesel.” The aerostat can also carry telecom equipment, cameras, and other payloads.

Glass first worked in wind power through MIT’s Energy Club and a senior year turbine array project, and he began mulling the airborne-turbine concept the summer before starting his aero-astro master’s degree program. The idea became a group project in his Sloan School class in energy ventures, where future Altaeros cofounder Adam Rein was a teaching assistant, and their concept went on to win the 2011 ConocoPhillips Energy Prize.

Startup life suits Glass, who juggles engineering, fund-raising, hiring, and dozens of other duties. “Every day is a different job; it’s a blast,” he says. He lives in Somerville and reserves time for cooking, running, and outdoor leisure: “We know Altaeros is a marathon and not a sprint, so we’re pretty good at not burning out.”

Glass draws on his experience on MIT’s Solar Car Team, which allowed participants to “go from conceptualization and design to building, testing, and using what we’d made,” he says. “You learn skills you can’t get in a classroom. I’d encourage everyone to do something like that, and then apply for a job at Altaeros!”

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

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Mosely works with Yongquan Lu, co-president of OrigaMIT

During the MIT project, Mosely works with Yongquan Lu, co-president of OrigaMIT. Video: Melanie Gonick.

A Menger Sponge is the answer. MIT’s origami team, OrigaMIT, which made one out of 50,000 business cards, defines it as a mathematical fractal formed by iteratively removing the middle cross-sections of a cube. Their effort is special because it helped complete an international effort to recreate a Megamenger and because the level-3 version was first designed and built by origami artist Jeannine Mosely SM ’79, EE ’80, PhD ’84.

Watch a video about their project, completing a level-3 Menger sponge—that measured ~54 inches to each side—thanks to the help of Mosely and the students, faculty, and staff who stopped by to fold last fall.

So what was Mosely’s role in constructing the level-3 Menger Sponge?

Mosely learned how to fold modular origami cubes out of business cards in 1994 from a verbal description in an email. Most modular origami designs involve tucking flaps into pockets in order to the link the units together, but the business card cube has only flaps and no pockets and is stable only when all of the flaps are on the outside of the model, she says. Then she had an insight while watching her seven-year-old son make and play with cubes.

“I realized that the corners of the flaps could be tucked under each other to link the cubes together. So you could build any shape you could imagine out of enough of them. I also observed that you could use the same unit to cover the flaps on the external faces of your model, to add pattern or color to the surface.”

By gathering obsolete business cards from colleagues, Mosely accumulated several hundred thousand cards. Then she decided to build a level-3 approximation of a Menger Sponge, a fractal shape named for its discoverer, Karl Menger. It’s an approximate rendering because a true fractal has an infinitesimal degree of detail, she says.

preparing for a 2006 exhibit.

Mosely takes a break when re-assembling eight separate sections for a 2006 exhibition at Machine Project, an LA art gallery. Photo: Margaret Wertheim, Institute For Figuring.

She estimated the project would require about 66,000 cards and take 800 person-hours to build. It took much longer.

“I decided to build it as a group project so that I could spread the joy of origami, math, and engineering around and get help building it. I taught classes and workshops at various schools, the MIT Museum, the Boston Science Museum, at origami conventions and festivals, always collecting cubes and larger modules for the finished sponge.”

Even then, with raising two children and working full time, the project took from 1994 to 2005.

Why do business cards work so well for this type of origami? The size, shape, and stiffness work well for three-dimensional projects. And they are easy to fold.

“The ratio of the sides of an American business card is 1.75:1. But 1.75 is very close to the square root of 3 (1.732) which is the arctangent of 60 degrees. This means that it is very easy to fold equilateral triangles in a business card. Just fold two opposite corners to touch each other and you will see what I mean. There are dozens of things you can do with equilateral triangles.”

Dr. Mosely’s current work as an origami artist includes the creation in 2008 of a model of the Worcester’s Union Station, with 300 local school children and 100 Worcester Polytechnic Institute students, in time for the New Year’s Eve celebration. The train station incorporated around 60,000 business cards and was 10′ wide, 7′ deep and 6′ tall.

Learn more about Jeannine Mosely and about paperfolding at MIT

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Social Textiles respond when users share a common interest. GIF: Social Textiles

What if your likes and interests on social media were broadcast to the world offline? Would that make it easier for you to make real world connections with people? That’s the idea behind Social Textiles, a wearable social network created by Media Lab students Viirj Kan, Katsuya Fujii, Judith Amores, and Chang Long Zhu Jin—members of the Fluid Interfaces and Tangible Media groups.

This wearable network is made up of t-shirts that light up when wearers share a common interest. When people wearing Social Textiles are within 12 feet of one another, their shirts will give a quick buzz on the shoulder to alert them that someone with a common interest is near. When the wearers identify each other and make a connection—by physically touching their new connection’s shirt—the shirt will light up, revealing their shared interest.

The idea for Social Textiles came from a class assignment in MAS.834, Tangible Interfaces. “We were told to make something intangible, tangible,” explains Viirj Kan, which got the group thinking about social media. “Online is good at connecting us at a distance, but not connecting us when we’re close,” Kan says. “We wanted to change that.”

These shirts don’t store information from your profiles on established social networks, but instead connect and light up around one or two common interests like a certain brand or community you belong to, like a university. Kan explains, “If you were to buy your shirt through a certain blog, that blog would be your connection and interest. Or if you bought your shirt at the COOP, that’s your connection.”

For now, Social Textiles are still in the development stages and aren’t available for purchase, though Kan does believe the wearable network belongs on store shelves. “People are really excited about it. At some point it should go out into the world, but the next steps are to test it on users more,” she says.

Until then, the combined Media Lab group is getting plenty of attention. As media outlets learn of Social Textiles, the group has to balance interviews and class time—adding to the learning experience. “It’s kind of like another class,” laughs Kan.

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Cathy Kenworthy, Interactive Health

Cathy Kenworthy SM ’91

Cathy Kenworthy has always sought challenging problems—as a McKinsey management consultant; in executive roles at GE, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase; and even at leisure. She’s a self-described “fanatic for finding the hardest sudokus and crossword puzzles.”

Today, as CEO of Interactive Health, she leads an organization that’s addressing an especially knotty challenge: high costs and mediocre outcomes in the U.S. health-care system.

Her work doesn’t involve new drugs or diagnostic equipment but, as she puts it, “simple principles broadly applied” to employees of more than 2,000 client companies. “We get hired to help employees be healthier through preventive care,” she explains.

Nutrition, activity level, and tobacco use are three areas of emphasis. “It’s so simple, but so profound,” says Kenworthy. “One area where we can generate tremendous impact is in the prevention of diabetes, which is a major life-altering event. You never stop being diabetic: it affects your longevity, it complicates many other medical conditions, and treatment costs a minimum of $20,000 annually.”

Interactive Health’s data analytics group, which Kenworthy built in her previous COO role, can now show the impact of the company’s work with pre-diabetics through counseling, coaching, and goal setting: 40 percent of them returned to normal health within one year.

“That’s a gigantic number, off the charts in any clinical sense,” she says. “And it’s one of the best things you can do for someone.”

Kenworthy originally planned to apply that type of compassionate problem solving as a doctor. During her sophomore year at Georgetown University, she was accepted to the university’s medical school, but after working in an emergency room and reflecting on her goals, she chose to major in chemistry and mathematics. She graduated in 1987 and went to work in finance.

At the Sloan School, Kenworthy gained insight from her classmates, who came from diverse lines of work and corners of the world. “I’d come from Wall Street with a total focus on financial engineering,” she says. “Sloan helped me consider the many ways to think about the topic of business.”

Kenworthy and her husband, William, are recent transplants to the Chicago area and have three teenage sons. They enjoy cooking together and are avid hikers, skiers, and walkers.

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

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Water, essential to the survival of all living things, is scarce in many developing nations. Lack of water for drinking, bathing, and farming effects the quality of life, health, and productivity. With this in mind, Kevin Simon and his teammates at the Tata Center are working on addressing these issues in India this week—Simon’s sixth trip in the past year and a half.

Kevin Simon, Tata Center, water irrigation, India

Kevin Simon (left) and Katherine Taylor (right) install a solar-powered pump system in Southern Jharkhand, India.

Simon, an Engineering Systems Division graduate student, is developing irrigation technology to meet the needs of agriculture in India. Water shortages, caused by inconsistent access to fresh water and no solar pumps for small farmers with shallow groundwater, result in underdeveloped crops and inefficient farming practices. Simon has co-invented low-cost, solar-powered pumps that enable farmers to access shallow water for irrigation. This innovation has the potential to give approximately 20 million farmers access to water without the need for deep wells and expensive diesel generators.

“Witnessing this sort of resource-constrained environment has driven me to focus on figuring out how to help these people most effectively,” says Simon.

During his last trip, Simon deployed two of the pumps in Southern Jharkhand, India, along with fellow graduate student Katherine Taylor and mechanical engineering senior Marcos Esparza. The farmers have been successfully operating the system and are already seeing results. “India and other developing countries are facing huge challenges and how they address those challenges will have a lot of say in the future of our planet,” says Simon. “It’s important for us to be engaged with these countries and working in partnership with them.”

This project was recently recognized, along with other campus-wide initiatives, as part of the MIT Innovation Initiative, an Institute-wide effort that encourages the Institute’s innovative ecosystem, which was launched in 2013 by President L. Rafael Reif.

Tata Center, water irrigation, india

Local farmers examine the pump

“The Tata Center is a great example of rigorous MIT research being pushed in new directions,” says Simon. “There’s a cross-pollination of ideas with our partners in India that helps us grow as students, engineers, and entrepreneurs. We get pushed out of our comfort zone and sometimes the things we believe are challenged. The MIT Innovation Initiative shows that we, as an Institute, are not complacent. We’re asking new questions and looking for new ways to approach old problems.”

Other Innovation Initiatives include a proposed innovation and entrepreneurship undergraduate minor, a semester for innovative “passion projects,” and a Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy.

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Katy Croff Bell '00, Exploration Vessel Nautilus, Media Lab, MIT

Katy Croff Bell ’00

Katy Croff Bell ’00 has helped discover dozens of ancient shipwrecks and new species of marine organisms. Now she brings the abyss to your desk, streaming her adventures aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus via Nautiluslive.org.

“The most exciting part of what I do is share discoveries in real time with millions of people all over the globe,” Bell says.

At MIT, Bell worked with Professor David Mindell PhD ’96, and his then-new Deep Water Archaeology group. They undertook expeditions to the Black Sea, working off small Turkish fishing boats, checking out features on the seafloor with a side-scan sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle.

“It was great experience to apply what I was learning in classes at MIT to a project in the field,” Bell says. It was also a chance to work with underwater archaeologist Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic.

Bell was a leader of several marine and engineering student societies at MIT, and she helped create an umbrella organization called 13SEAs, the Course 13 Student Engineering Association, which lives on as MIT’s ocean engineering, naval architecture, and marine technology student organization.

After graduation, Bell served as a marine policy fellow in NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration in Washington. In 2006, National Geographic Society awarded Bell an Emerging Explorer Award. She earned a master’s degree in maritime archaeology at England’s University of Southampton, and then she joined Ballard’s research group at the University of Rhode Island, where she earned a PhD in geological oceanography in 2011.

She’s now the vice president and chief scientist of Ocean Exploration Trust, leading expeditions on Nautilus in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. “We’re going to places that have never been explored to see what’s there,” she says. “There are things we can’t even conceive of out there, and it will take a long, long time to fully understand our own planet.”

In 2014, Joi Ito named Bell an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, a two-year appointment. “It’s been fun to come back and reconnect with incredible people doing groundbreaking research at the Institute,” she says. “I’ve been talking with Professor Ed Boyden, who uses fluorescent proteins to map neuron connections in the brain. There are marine organisms that glow; we can study their genomes and, we hope, identify new proteins and combine what we’re doing, pushing the boundaries of both our fields.”

Bell and her husband, fisheries biologist Rich Bell, live in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and are expecting their first child in April. During her maternity leave, Bell plans to use telepresence technology to participate in the 2015 Nautilus expedition through the Panama Canal to the Galápagos Islands from April through December.

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