Jill Hecht Maxwell

Dr. Meryl Nass on vacation in Thailand

Dr. Meryl Nass ’75 is a small-town doctor concerned with issues of national importance. She’s an internist in Bar Harbor, Maine. At her clinic for complex disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and Gulf War Syndrome, she sees patients from all over the state plus some who come up from Massachusetts. But her voice is heard as far away as Washington.

Nass has testified before U.S. Congressional committees twice on Gulf War Syndrome and once on the potential dangers of the anthrax vaccine given to all soldiers who ship out; she’s prepared written testimonies for the record about the anthrax vaccine and the prevention of and response to bioterrorism. In 2008 Nass served as a consultant to the federal director of national intelligence on preventing domestic bioterrorism. She is now the chair of the Commission to Protect the Lives and Health of the Maine National Guard.

Nass, who majored in biology, traces her chutzpah at least as far back as her MIT days. Outside the classroom, she protested the Vietnam War. In the lab, she says, “We weren’t pushed into any mold. We were encouraged to think and to question.”

That’s exactly what she did when, in 1989, she was asked by her chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility to look into some anthrax research going on at UMass Amherst. What she found piqued her interest in germ warfare. She went to the library at Harvard and read up on outbreaks from the 1800s. She thus became an expert in anthrax—and a national PSR spokesperson on biological warfare—just as the first Gulf War broke out, and was later in a unique position to weigh in on the 2001 mailing of anthrax-contaminated letters.

Nass wrote journal articles suggesting that we might not want to give the anthrax vaccine to millions of soldiers without a little more data on how safe it is. In 1995, a Congressional committee published a report that linked higher rates of Gulf War syndrome with the anthrax vaccine. “The Army didn’t pay attention,” she says, and vaccines remain mandatory. She has testified in the courts martial of soldiers and sailors who’d refused the vaccine. She still blogs about anthrax vaccine—and any other public health concerns that cross her mind–almost daily. “Some members of Congress have called for further investigation, but nothing’s happening,” she says.

More recently Nass, who says she is in no way anti-vaccine, has spoken out about the safety of the swine flu vaccine. She was gratified when the U.S. government bought shots without squalene, an additive she considers risky. Her biggest concern at the moment, however, is the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic injuries in soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “They’re not necessarily getting any better,” Nass says. “The Army has good programs, but they’re not reaching enough people.”

One of Nass’s two sons is also an alum; Jake Abernethy ’02 is a PhD candidate at Berkeley. She notes that her boys are related to Richard Cockburn Maclaurin—MIT’s president from 1909 to 1920—through their dad.


For the past four years, Nitin Sawhney SM ’98, PhD ’03 has traveled to a part of the world most people wouldn’t think of when considering a summer break: Gaza. For Sawhney, a researcher and lecturer in the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, it’s more rewarding than any trip to the beach. He runs a digital media and storytelling program that engages young Palestinians in refugee camps in producing short films and photography about their everyday lives and aspirations. It’s called Voices Beyond Walls, and this year it was supported in part by the Center for Future Civic Media. Here’s a slideshow from this summer’s project, “Re-imagining Gaza.”

Sawhney was born in India and grew up in Iran and Bahrain. He did his undergraduate work at Georgia Tech. In 2000, Sawhney was pursuing his Ph.D. at the MIT Media Lab when intense violence broke out in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Sawhney was increasingly drawn to the conflict as he tried to come to terms with the needless loss of life and suffering in the region. He found himself regularly attending and organizing many events on campus to make students better informed about the conflict, including dialogue sessions, film screenings, exhibits and a large public lecture on the topic by Noam Chomsky. “The students and faculty at MIT have been incredible about helping me understand and come to grips with these issues,” he says. “For all its technical legacy, I found the MIT community far more socio-politically engaged and open-minded than many other such academic environments.”

After graduating from MIT, Sawhney founded a startup company that developed open source software to support publicly funded biomedical research. But the Middle East conflict continued to weigh upon him. In 2006 he decided he had to stop thinking and do something. That summer, he took an unpaid leave from his firm and traveled to the West Bank with little more than a laptop and some video cameras in a backpack. His plan: develop a youth media program as a pilot project on the ground. Voices Beyond Walls was born out of a collaboration with local community centers in the refugee camps he visited. Through an international and local volunteer team of artists, filmmakers and educators, the program has been expanded to seven refugee camps in the West Bank, with over 60 video shorts produced in the past four years. Many are posted on the Voices Beyond Walls YouTube channel.

This summer, Sawhney and colleagues conducted the program in parallel in the Al Aroub camp in the West Bank and the Jabaliya camp in Gaza. They first trained 50 young Palestinian adults in a three-day training workshop on digital media and storytelling techniques. This is a short film produced during one of these workshops:

Many of these young adults then facilitated month-long workshops with  kids aged 10 to 16 at community centers in the refugee camps. The kids learned photography, neighborhood mapping, script-writing, storyboarding, acting, filming, and video editing. Sawhney regularly blogged about his experiences running the program in Gaza, and the kids interviewed each other as the program came to an end. (“How did you handle the editing software?” one student asked another. “I had some difficulties at first,” came the answer, “but now I feel like a professional.”)

Earlier this month, the kids capped off their program with photo exhibitions, film screenings, and diploma ceremonies. At the end of the final screening in Gaza, Sawhney says, “The young girls on stage were so confident responding to questions from the audience about their films; I can imagine many of them doing the same at an international film festival in a few years.”

Sawhney plans to follow the workshop participants and their families in Gaza this year, collecting data for a pilot study on the role of creative media expression among young children in areas of conflict. He wants to see if the kids regularly engaged in producing their own media-based narratives are coping better than their peers living in the refugee camp without such a creative outlet—Sawhney calls it “participatory media”—to work through the challenges they are confronted with on a regular basis.

Here in Cambridge, Sawhney is working with MIT researchers and local community organizations to jointly develop better ways to empower youth with digital media, as part of an initiative he co-founded called the Department of Play at the Center for Future Civic Media. In the fall semester, Sawhney will teach Networked Cultures and Participatory Media, incorporating many of his experiences and research into the newly-developed curricula. And in late October, he plans to host an exhibition and screening of the youth photography and films from the Re-imagining Gaza program at MIT. Later this year he is also helping to organize a symposium on Gaza with the Center for International Studies and Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative.

In a way, he’s come full circle back to his own struggles with the violence in the Middle East as an MIT student 10 years ago. “Over the years I have realized it’s a far bigger challenge helping Americans understand why the conflict continues,” Sawhney says. “So I feel we should find ways to leverage participatory media both for civic engagement and global awarness. Young voices in the Palestinian Territories are rarely heard but are far more authentic in revealing the context and humanizing the conflict.”


Art by Lynette May; Click Picture for Prints

Colrika? Erikin? Neither has the ring of Brangelina. Nevertheless, it’s our own celebrity couple. And unlike the famously unmarried Jolie-Pitts, Colin Angle ’89 SM ’91 and Erika Ebbel ’04 are tying the knot today on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The bride is a PhD candidate in analytical biochemistry at Boston University. While an undergrad at MIT, she founded the WhizKids Foundation, a non-profit group in Cambridge that gets school kids more involved in science. She’s also Miss Massachusetts 2004.

She is the daughter of Eric and Kathryn Ebbel of Hillsborough, Calif.

The groom is co-founder, CEO, and chairman of the board of directors of iRobot, headquartered in Bedford, Mass.

He is the son of Lisa King of Schenectady, NY and Charles E. Angle of Marblehead, Mass.

The couple met when they were both judges at the Boston FIRST Regional Robotics Competition. “He came and sat next to me on the last day and started up a conversation,” Ms. Ebbel said.


Solar entrepreneur Marco Ferrara

Marco Ferrara SM ’05, PhD ’09 has been named a top-100 best-dressed Bostonian by Fashion Boston magazine.

When reached at his start-up, Solar Machines, the slightly mortified Ferrara laughed and then plugged his innovative device. “We’re making a water pump that uses solar energy to produce mechanical work,” Ferrara says. “On paper, it looks far cheaper than the technologies that have been available. We’re planning to serve low-income farmers who need to pump water for irrigation.”

Solar Machines is a semifinalist in the Cleantech Open, a business plan competition for energy and environmental startups. The national Cleantech winner, which will be announced in November, will snag a quarter million dollars in cash and services. Ferrara says the competition has netted him great advice from industry rock stars. He points out that last year’s Cleantech winner, IntAct Labs, was an MIT startup. He says he’d like to see the East Coast catch up with California’s dominance of the green technology scene. “The more teams we attract,” he says, “the better we are in trying to solve our problems.”

As for the fashion nod—the freebie magazine calls him “MIT’s Italian stallion of haberdashery”—Ferrara suspects he was nominated by a friend who edits Boldfacers.com.

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Robert R. Taylor in his student days.

Tuskegee University has named its new school of architecture for MIT’s first African-American graduate. Until last month the architecture department was part of the College of Engineering, Architecture and Physical Sciences at Tuskegee; now it’s the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture. Outgoing Tuskegee president Dr. Benjamin F. Payton made the change his last official act.

Robert R. Taylor graduated from MIT in 1892. That same year, at the invitation of Booker T. Washington, the newly minted brass ratter (OK, this was pre-brass rat) set up an architecture program at the Alabama school. “It was very much based on the positive experiences he had at MIT. In spirit, it is very closely aligned with us here,” says Mark Jarzombek PhD ’86, a professor of the history and theory of architecture and the associate dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.

Taylor is considered the first professionally educated black architect in America. He was also the only African-American student at MIT at the time he was enrolled. “It’s difficult for us to imagine today what it was like back then,” says Jarzombek. “It speaks to his courage and talent, and also a particular type of personality that saw a need for leadership.”

Though Taylor broke down barriers, only about 1.5 percent of today’s American architects are black. (Ted Landsmark, CEO of the Boston Architectural College delivered this great lecture on race in architecture education and practice in 2007. “MIT is viewed as a leader in the field of architectural education,” he said, “but you’re also taking on an entire profession which has elected to a very large extent to ignore these issues completely.” ) At MIT, a fellowship and a non-profit educational foundation bearing Taylor’s name are both aimed at bringing more underrepresented minorities into the profession.


This carved mantle caught alum Warren Katz's eye

When Warren Katz ’87 sold the software company he’d founded, he used some of the proceeds to buy an 1875 Back Bay townhouse and set about fixing it up to its former glory. At Restoration Resources he discovered an ornately carved mantlepiece that was perfect for the old Victorian. Examining the intricate coat-of-arms design, Katz was suprised to see the words “By the Name of Warren” carved into a wooden ribbon. “Of course I had to have it,” he says.

Katz bought the mantle as well as some wainscoting. The people at the shop told him that both had come from a Commonwealth Avenue home gutted for condos. The home turned out to be around the corner from Katz’s townhouse at 20 Fairfield Street. “I was happy to keep architectural treasures like this in the neighborhood,” he says.

Curious about the name on the mantle, he started digging for information. What he found furnishes a nice bookend for the history of his house.

The house that the mantle came from had belonged to a paper-company owner called Mortimer B. Mason, whose mom was a Warren (hence the carving). Mason’s partner in the paper business was a Warren cousin who also shared a law practice with future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

Delving deeper, Katz discovered that the architect who designed Mason’s Comm. Ave. digs, a Francis Richmond Allen, lived at 20 Fairfield Street—the very house that Katz had bought and decorated with the Comm. Ave. mantle.

“Did Allen invite Mason, Warren, and Brandeis over to 20 Fairfield in 1888 to go over some last minute details on the mantle drawing over a glass of port?” Warren Katz wonders. Anything’s possible in this tale of forensic architecture. One hundred and ten years before Katz graduated, Allen was studying architecture—at MIT.

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Ancient Philosophy and Mathematics is one of 2000 courses available on OCW.

OpenCourseWare, the free online repository of all MIT undergraduate and graduate course material, nabbed a Science Prize for Online Resources in Education from the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. An essay in Science accompanies the recognition.

“We are honored to have been selected for this award,” says executive director Cecilia d’Oliveira. “This is a wonderful recognition of the thousands of voluntary contributions of materials from MIT community members that make MIT OpenCourseWare possible.”

OpenCourseWare contains the entire curriculum from all 33 academic departments. People from all over the world use it for all different reasons; 50% of alumni use it for academic purposes, for example, and 60% of all users are outside of North America. But d’Oliveira is most proud of the wave of 250 universities worldwide that have followed MIT’s lead in creating an online body of knowledge. This fall marks the debut of “OCW Scholar Courses,” new sets of physics, math, and computer science course materials designed specifically for independent learners.

While it’s free to the world, OpenCourseWare costs close to $4 million a year. MIT currrently covers about half the budget; grant reserves support the rest. With grant reserves running down, d’Oliveira says, OpenCourseWare will soon begin an NPR-style funding model with corporate gifts and underwriting and individual contributions.


Relegated to the purgatory of the wait list, one North Brunswick, NJ, applicant channeled his frustration into an infectious groove. He laid it down in a video with punchy kinetic typography—moving text—and sent it to Admissions.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Rishikesh Ramnarayan Tirumala ’14.

One of the best parts of this story are the comments that readers have left for “RRT” on the Freshman Admissions blog . Even students who applied and did not get in themselves are just plain happy for him.

RRT is spending his summer in India, taking advanced lessons in Mridangam, which is South Indian classical percussion, and volunteering at a local Habitat for Humanity center. “Surprisingly,” he tells Slice, “my work there involved making them a video.”


Frank Moss SM ’72, PhD ’77 intends to step down from his MediaLab director post early next year. Moss tells Boston.com’s Scott Kirsner that he’d like to bring to market some of the lab’s ideas for people who are disadvantaged or disabled.

Moss, whose MIT degrees are in aeronautics and astronautics, is a veteran technology and biotech executive and entrepreneur. He served as CEO and chairman of Tivoli Systems Inc., which merged with IBM in 1996. He also co-founded several other companies, including graphic supercomputer developer Stellar Computer Inc; web services pioneer Bowstreet Inc.; and Infinity Pharmaceuticals, an early-stage cancer drug discovery company.

When he took the top job at the MediaLab in 2006, Moss’s mission was to shore up corporate sponsorship while maintaining the lab’s oft-cited culture. “If people said that I solidified sponsor relationships during a period of economic uncertainty, but that the craziness and wackiness that defines the MediaLab was gone, that would have been bad,” Moss told Kirsner. “I think the place is every bit as unorthodox and out-of-the-box as it was twenty years ago. Students seem to feel that, and they’re really the measure of success here.”

Moss, who is writing a book about innovation, says his February departure date is flexible if a new director has not yet been named. And he’ll keep working with the New Media Medicine group, which he founded at the lab.

(In other MediaLab news, ArchitectureWeek loves the new building .)


Computer modeling has scientists revising their theories about this very active volcano.

For decades, scientists have theorized that bubbles the size of swimming pools have been rising through the magma of Italy’s Stromboli Volcano, causing it to erupt every five to 20 minutes for thousands of years. New research from geophysics Ph.D. candidate Jenny Suckale of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences suggests that the big bubble theory goes against basic laws of fluid dynamics.

Volcanologists figured that as magma oozes toward Stromboli’s surface, pressure drops, and small bubbles merge into a huge one, which explodes at the top of the volcano’s neck. But Suckale reasoned that magma does not have enough surface tension or viscosity to maintain such big bubbles. So with MIT colleagues, she developed a computer model of the volcano’s gas- and magma-filled innards. When she changed the scale parameters, she found that a massive gas bubble wouldn’t last longer than a second in Stromboli’s belly.

Instead, Stromboli is more likely stoppered by a cork-like plug of crystals and gas bubbles. The accumulating pressure of more tiny bubbles forces the plug to fracture, shooting ejecta—gas, rocks, and liquid—out of the volcano.

Experts say Suckale’s research is a small step toward modeling a complex system. We’re nowhere near able to make accurate predictions of natural disasters, like the giant ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull, which wreaked havoc on European airspace this spring after laying low for over 190 years. Still, Suckale says, future modeling might help mitigate such disasters. “It would be a big step forward if we could compute an average particle size, ejecta height and speed, and duration of the eruption, to inform decisions about flight traffic, even if we cannot predict the actual event itself,” she says. For now, she says, “The most fun was really to brainstorm about what had been missed in the previous model and how we can come up with a more convincing framework.”

Read the full story.