Nancy DuVergne Smith

Guest Blogger: Nicole Taylor, Continuum

In the hunt for signs of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370—which disappeared on March 8 after deviating for unknown reasons from its scheduled flight path—all eyes turn to a company that got its start at MIT.

The Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (pictured) will help search for missing flight MH370. Photo: Bluefin Robotics

The Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (pictured) is searching for missing flight MH370. Photo: Bluefin Robotics

Bluefin Robotics, founded in 1997 by a core group of engineers from the MIT Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Lab, is the maker of the Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). The US Navy, which has used a version of the unmanned submersible to locate landmines, has kept it standing by for weeks while larger vessels worked to narrow down the plane’s resting place off the coast of Australia. On Monday, April 14, the Bluefin’s operators finally got the go-ahead to send it into the depths. Although the first try ended without success, searchers sent Bluefin-21 back out several times later in the week.

The long, skinny AUV (more than 16 feet long and only 21 inches in diameter) can run for up to 25 hours at a time. Moving at three knots, however, it’s no speedier than the average pedestrian, which is why narrowing the field of search has been so crucial to its use—and why its explorations could take six to eight weeks. More challenging still is the enormity of the unknown environment into which the robot will descend. Last week, Commodore Peter Leavy of the Royal Australian Navy remarked to reporters, “It has been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than our own seabed.”

Why deploy the Bluefin-21 now? The black box of an aircraft has enough power to emit pings for approximately 30 days. At day 38, with the last of four pings detected nearly a week ago, searchers are assuming those signals have ceased for good. The only other new clue to help the Bluefin’s team zero in on the wreckage is an oil slick discovered yesterday.

Once the Bluefin-21 gets into the water, it will take roughly two hours to descend about 2.5 miles, at which point its sensors will begin imaging the ocean floor with sonar. If it can find any signs of a crash—or, better yet, the voice recorder that captured the last sounds from the cockpit—the world may at last learn what befell the 239 people whose flight never got to its destination.

And the work continues: in the spirit of Harold “Doc” Edgerton, Boston-area teenagers will design and build an AUV at MIT this summer.



Guest Blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE Technical Writer

Bridges have profoundly affected Nelly Rosario ’94 all her life. “Maybe because I’m a bilingual middle child who grew up near the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn and often crossed it on foot, bridges play such a literal and figurative role in my imagination,” she said.

Nelly Rosario '94

Nelly Rosario ’94

Her career similarly spans the two cultures of engineering and humanities. Although she received her degree in civil and environmental engineering, this academic year she has returned to MIT as a visiting scholar with the Comparative Media Studies and Writing Department.

“Writing was how I distilled what I learned and is a great way to bridge disciplines, people, ideas.” Rosario credits legendary MIT professor Elzbieta (Chodakowska) Ettinger with “pushing me over the edge to make a decision about my focus after MIT. One of the biggest lessons she imparted was to really understand writing as a science and in a serious way.”

After graduation, Rosario returned to New York City and attended writing classes while teaching environmental education at a high school auspiciously called El Puente [The Bridge]. She then enrolled in the graduate writing program at Columbia and realized “it was sort of the inverse of MIT: suddenly none of my engineering background counted in class. But in the second year, I understood that in design, simplicity is always best, and I really tried to bring an elegance to each sentence.” A few years later, she published a critically acclaimed book, Song of the Water Saints. For the last seven years, she has taught creative writing at Texas State University.

Currently Rosario is preparing for her next novel, which concentrates on medicine and anatomy, by visiting MIT libraries, interviewing people, and sitting in on lectures. She notices changes since her own student days including many more women students and faculty and a greater focus on digital thinking, multimedia, new ways of telling stories.

Rosario also serves part-time as writer and researcher for the ongoing Blacks at MIT History Project directed by Clarence Williams, MIT adjunct professor of urban studies, emeritus. “We’re looking at how blacks influenced the Institute and vice versa, collecting oral histories, photographs and data, and analyzing the material within a larger framework and context. We’re thinking about a way to look at history to unfold the future, what that means for the Institute, and how diversity and excellence can work in tandem.”

As a residential scholar in Simmons Hall, Rosario said, “It’s like a trifecta being here: a visiting scholar, working with the Blacks at MIT History Project, and living at Simmons. I get to talk to so many students, and everyone is doing intense work in different fields. I’m literally living in the sponge, soaking it all up.”



Hugh Herr at TED

Hugh Herr SM ’93 greets Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who used a leg designed by Herr to perform for the first time since her injury in the Boston Marathon bombings, and her dance partner Christian Lightner. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

Guest Blogger: Stephanie Eich, Continuum

TED celebrated its 30th anniversary this month with a weeklong conference called the Next Chapter. What began as a small gathering featuring short (≤18 minutes) talks has grown into a worldwide media phenomenon, with more than 1,600 talks available online.

In honor of its anniversary, TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) welcomed back some of its “All-Star” speakers from previous years. Kicking things off was MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte ’66, MArch ’66, whose 1984 TED talk predicted tablet computing and online shopping. Negroponte offered a new prognostication this year—that one day, we will acquire knowledge by simply ingesting a pill.

Other TED All-Stars with MIT ties:

MIT was well represented throughout the week, both onstage and off:

Using the virtual reality technology Oculus Rift, attendees had the chance to experience Eyewire, a game developed at Sebastian Seung’s lab at MIT that is crowdsourcing a map of the brain.


Biomechatronics engineer David Sengeh SM ’12 speaks at a TED Fellows Talk. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

LittleBits creator Ayah Bdeir SM ’06 and biomechatronics engineer David Sengeh SM ’12 joined a TED Fellows Talk, billed as a session in which attendees should “expect the unexpected.”

Physics professor Allan Adams took on the fundamental nature of the universe, as well as an explanation of Big Bang discovery, illustrated by the comic strip xkcd.

Nancy Kanwisher ’80, PhD ’86, MIT’s Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, compared the brain to a Swiss Army knife.

Hugh Herr SM ’93, who heads the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, spoke of next-generation bionic limbs—and a first dance.

Ray Kurzweil ’70 explained his theory of the hierarchy of the brain.

Rodney Brooks, MIT professor emeritus and cofounder of iRobot, predicted that in the future, humans will work alongside robots, leading to a new manufacturing model.

XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis ’83, SM ’88, announced a new competition for future TED talks on artificial intelligence.

And cyber illusionist Marco Tempest, a director’s fellow at the MIT Media Lab, showed up with his robotic friend EDI (Electronic Deceptive Intelligence).

TED’s the Next Chapter conference offered a wide range of opinions on how society and technology will evolve in the next 30 years. We’ll find out in 2044 which predictions became reality.

Watch more talks and read news from the TED 30th anniversary event.


Ayah Bdeir SM ’06

Ayah Bdeir SM ’06

Maker culture has swept through technology circles, bolstering invention, celebrating hands-on construction, and encouraging do-it-yourselfers—to be more like the MIT community. In fact, seven of the “25 Makers Who Are Reinventing the American Dream” recently honored in Popular Mechanics hail from MIT.

Did their MIT backgrounds play a role?

“My MIT experience was instrumental,” says Ayah Bdeir SM ’06, founder of littleBits, kits of color-coded bricks that snap together to create circuits with sensors, switches, and motors. “As soon as I set foot in the Media Lab, I learnt a whole new way of looking at engineering. That it was a way of thinking and solving problems; that technology was a means to an end; and technology could be a mode of expression, vision, and creativity. And most importantly, that any individual could ‘re-invent’ technology and its impact on the world. These ideas are instrumental to being a maker.”

Eric Wilhelm ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’04 and Christy Canida ’99 after making their Halloween sand worm costumes.

Eric Wilhelm ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’04 and Christy Canida ’99 after making their Dune-themed Halloween costumes.

Eric Wilhelm ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’04, who along with Christy Canida 99 was honored for their how-to company, Instructables, says his undergraduate living group gave him the opportunity to gain confidence and experience.

“Making things requires practice,” Wilhelm says, “and I had amazing opportunities in my living group to practice cooking, electronics, home repair, and myriad other techniques in an environment where the inevitable failure would result in laughs and a good story.”

Why is maker culture so popular now?

Danielle Applestone ’02

Danielle Applestone ’02

Several factors support maker culture, says Danielle Applestone ’02, who leads Othermill, a producer of $2,000 machines that can etch circuit boards and carve complex 3D shapes. “One of the big ones is that it is extremely easy to not only transfer and distribute digital plans everywhere for free, but you can also get support for making projects much easier than before,” she says. “I think people realize how far removed they are from making tangible things, and so ‘making’ is interesting and novel to the general public. The tools for making things of industrial quality are now becoming more affordable, so that puts the power of manufacturing into the hands of a much larger group of people.”

Scott Miller SM ’96

Scott Miller SM ’96

When Scott Miller SM ’96 earned an ocean engineering degree, being a maker was the only choice. “We had to design and build everything from scratch,” says Miller, head of Dragon Innovation, a firm that helps budding companies scale their ideas to industry size.

Now, he notes, makers have choices and advantages—including lower-cost electrical components, great prototyping tools, and access to cloud computing. Another boost is crowdfunding to generate startup resources and social media to reach millions of potential customers.

Who else was honored?


Clemmie Mitchell from Scotland taught English in a Tanzanian village school.

Clemmie Mitchell from Scotland taught English in a Tanzanian village school.

How would you spend a year between high school graduation and your first year at MIT? Several members of the Class of 2018 took that gap year opportunity and their adventures ranged from teaching in a Tanzanian village to working in a San Francisco startup on the verge of acquisition.

These gap students will join the students admitted on Pi Day, March 14. Only 7.7 of these applicants were invited to join a talented and diverse class hailing from 50 states, with a quarter identifying as members of underrepresented minority groups and 17 percent as the first generation in their family to attend college.

For her gap year, Clementine “Clemmie” Mitchell from Scotland opted for travel.

Mikayla Murphy, who is using her gap year to study Chinese in Taiwan, is learning about local culture.

Mikayla Murphy, who is using her gap year to study Chinese in Taiwan, is learning about local culture.

“Deciding to take a gap year, after having been accepted to MIT, seemed like the perfect scenario for me,” she says. “While intellectual development is undoubtedly essential for a fulfilled existence, the idea of freedom and exploration has always thrilled me.”

Her first stop was living with a Tanzanian family, teaching English to school children and teachers in an impoverished district, and taking part in village life from communions to cooking. “The family, the school children, and the other characters in the village, with whom I became friends, showed me the essence of happiness,” she says. “It does not stem from things but rather from relationships.”

Her next stop was Australia where she backpacked through rugged terrain and worked at a cattle station, tending animals, mending fences, and caring for an elderly woman. “By living entirely within my means, with no more than my back-pack and an open mind, I was able to understand how little was ‘enough.’”

Then she traveled to the French Alps where she focused on improving her skiing and conversational French, doing odd jobs from nannying to selling lift passes. Next, she is working as part of the crew on a sail boat, crossing the Atlantic from the British Virgin Islands to Gibraltar.

Herng Yi Cheng leads an origami math workshop for Grade 8 students in Singapore.

Herng Yi Cheng leads an origami math workshop for Grade 8 students in Singapore.

Herng Yi Cheng, during his gap time, completed the two years of mandatory national service required of male Singaporeans. And, while his days were mostly occupied with clerical work, his nights and weekend have been devoted to his passions—origami and mathematics.

“I’ve been folding origami for about a decade,” Cheng says. “As a math enthusiast I’ve been researching the mathematics behind origami techniques for five years and counting.” Besides his own research, he has conducted workshops on origami and math for elementary school students and helped organize a public exhibition with the origami Singapore group. Since his national service concluded in January, he has more time. “I recently returned from a design workshop in Malmö, Sweden, hosted by Tetra Pak®, where nine other artists and designers from various backgrounds and I brainstormed new designs for paper packaging.”

Cheng knows what he wants to study when he arrives on campus. “MIT has a team at the forefront of research in computational origami, including Professor Erik Demaine, one of the leading origami theorists. Besides learning a solid foundation in math and computer science, I hope I can learn more about origami research from the experts at MIT!”

Peter Downs pictured with the Locu team, cofounded by Rene Reinsberg MBA ’11, Marc Piette MBA ‘11 plus Marek Olszewski and  Stelios Sidiroglou-Douskos, a former graduate student and a post doc.

Peter Downs pictured with the team at Locu, a company  cofounded by Rene Reinsberg MBA ’11, Marc Piette MBA ’11, and other MIT community members.

Peter Downs from Philadelphia says he embarked on his gap experience spontaneously. “The May of my senior year of high school I started interviewing for programming jobs based in San Francisco because I was curious to see if I was good enough to be hired into a full-time software engineering role. It was mostly just for kicks but I received a decent offer and ended up flying out there to start work in June.”

Although this first company quickly failed, he soon joined the San Francisco office of Locu, a company founded by MIT alumni and graduate students. When they were acquired in August 2013, he put off MIT one more time to “ride out the acquisition.”

Downs feels he picked up some important skills that will help his planned computer science studies. “I think that I’ve also gotten much better at working with people and even managing projects: last summer I had an intern of my own, who is currently doing her MEng in CS at MIT. I feel like I’ve been well prepared to apply what I will learn at school to a real-world context.”


MIT Chamber Music Society

Musicians rehearsing Haydn’s Quartett No. 41, Op. 76, No. 2 include Annie Kwon ’11, first violin; Eva Cheung ’11, second violin, Steve Lynch ’10, viola; Minhee Sung ’10, cello, and Marcus Thompson, coach. Photo: Richard West.

Guest blogger: Peter Dunn

Chamber music ensembles are the lean startups of the orchestral world—a handful of colleagues must cover a wide range of situations, without the reinforcement or management hierarchy of a symphony orchestra.

That model creates both transcendent music and teaching opportunities, and it is a primary factor in the enduring success of MIT’s Chamber Music Society, which this year marks its 40th anniversary under the direction of founder Marcus Thompson, the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music.

“There’s more individual responsibility in a small group—you can’t hide behind other people playing the same part,” says Thompson, an internationally prominent chamber violist who also teaches at New England Conservatory and is artistic director of the Boston Chamber Music Society. “At the same time, four or five people have to work together, giving up something of themselves to the ensemble, just as you do in sports and other collaborative efforts.”

After passing auditions, the society’s 100 student members commit to challenging rehearsal schedules and weekly coaching to prepare for end-of-semester recitals by about 25 ensembles, which range from piano and violin trios and quartets to wind ensembles and small choral groups.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the society,” says pianist and first-year biological engineering student Connor Duffy. “Setting aside time each week to make music with two of my closest friends is a valuable and irreplaceable part of my life.”

Cellist Emily Mackevicius, a brain and cognitive science PhD student and society member since 2011, agrees. “Chamber music is a refreshing break from lab work, because it requires a totally different type of focus. It’s great to just pay attention to making music and fitting in with the other people in my group while incorporating advice from the coaches.”

Thompson notes that this spirit is prevalent on campus, with 400 students participating in official MIT ensembles like the Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble and Concert Choir, and about 200 pursuing music majors, minors, or concentrations.

“People come here with all these facets, and MIT’s leadership has recognized for decades that we need be able to teach them through various avenues and challenge them as they move across disciplines,” he explains.

“We’ve gone from being a tech school to being a place that prepares people to take a leadership role in society. To do that, you have to understand the human condition, ambiguity, how peoples’ thoughts and feelings are shaped, communities that are different from your own. These are all part of the discipline of music, and chamber music has a great literature that lets that happen on a small scale.”

Enjoy past performances via the MIT Listening Room.


Chuck Vest, MIT president 1990–2004, interviewed by journalist John Hockenberry for the MIT150 celebration.

Chuck Vest, MIT president 1990–2004, reflects on his presidency during the MIT150 celebration.

The powerful leadership of a humble man was a central theme of the March 6 memorial service for Charles M. Vest, MIT’s 15th president. Vest, who died of pancreatic cancer in December, was praised for influential decisions ranging from supporting gender equity to establishing OpenCourseWare, an idea that has sparked a learning revolution.

His bold decisions provide leadership lessons for many of the speakers including Institute and academic leaders, former Vice President Al Gore, and Raymond S. Stata ’57, SM ’58, founder of Analog Devices.

Former MIT presidents Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55 and Susan Hockfield praised Vest’s tireless advocacy in Washington. “As president of the National Academy of Engineers, he continued his role as advocate in chief for sound federal policy for education and research,” Hockfield said.

Al Gore, commenting via video, called Vest a good friend and a “true visionary” who was instrumental in advising the Clinton-Gore White House on emerging science and technology, environmental policy, the design of the space program, and the development of the information superhighway.

“Chuck Vest changed the lives of women scientists and engineers worldwide,” Professor Emeritus of Biology Nancy Hopkins reminded the audience. In 1999 when he endorsed the findings of the MIT report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science, which documented unequal treatment, he asked to write a note with the report.

“Chuck wrote, ‘I’ve always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.’ With his two sentences, Chuck had reached from MIT into the White House and obtained a national mandate from the president of the United States,” Hopkins said.

Ray Stata said Vest profoundly changed campus life for students—and he stayed calm even when decisions were contentious. “Chuck’s mild manner masked his profound sense of purpose and his determination to leave MIT an even greater place that he found it,” Stata noted.

In Stata’s own undergraduate days, “student life was a grim experience in many ways, but it didn’t have to be that way,” Stata said. Vest’s support for the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning resulted in a new policy that required first-year students to live on campus, a policy shift that generated much discussion along with changes in the living groups. “The culture of community emerged from this task force where learning to live and living to learn became inseparable,” Stata said.

That decision also contributed to a wave of new construction, another signature of Vest’s legacy. Graduate and undergraduate residences, new research facilities, department consolidations, and a spacious recreation facility resulted.

Vest’s leadership was also evident in the quality of the buildings, Stata said. “’Why not hire Frank Gehry to build an iconic building to symbolize MIT’s commitment to innovation?’ Vest asked. ‘Why don’t we build a student street where students could mingle, socialize, learn, and collaborate?’ … Aren’t we grateful today that he had the courage and foresight to make such a bold commitment to MIT’s future?”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif said he had come to see Chuck Vest as a teacher and “I have become one of his most committed students.” He quoted Vest’s last president’s report:

“Boldness does not come naturally to me…but there are instances when both institutions and individuals must decide whether or not to strike out in new directions or to seize a moment. Boldness [then]… is a simple application of core values at a critical moment in time.”

Learn more about Vest’s MIT leadership, watch memorial service speakers describe his many contributions to MIT, or view his reflections on his presidency in an MIT150 Infinite History interview by journalist John Hockenberry.


Once again, MIT has been ranked the best graduate engineering school by U.S. News & World Report, the position MIT has held since 1990 in the magazine’s annual ratings of graduate schools. Who’s next in line? Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Caltech.

How the world sees MIT.

MIT from above.

In the School of Engineering, top-ranked graduate engineering programs include aerospace engineering; chemical engineering; materials engineering; computer engineering; electrical engineering (tied); mechanical engineering (tied); and nuclear engineering (tied).

USNews and World Report does not rank all disciplines annually. In the first sciences evaluations in several years, the School of Science took the top spot in biological sciences (tied); chemistry (tied) plus an additional top ranking in the specialty of inorganic chemistry; computer science (tied); mathematics (tied) plus top ranking in discrete mathematics and combinations; and physics.

The MIT Sloan School of Management’s graduate programs in information systems, production/operations, and supply chain/logistics were again ranked first this year; Sloan was ranked the #5 business school.

Read the MIT News article to see which other MIT disciplines scored in the top five nationally and the contenders in the ties.


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Guest Blogger: Camilla Brinkman, Edgerton Center

MIT alumni of the 2004 Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) team play a role in a new documentary film, Underwater Dreams, the story of four Mexican-American teenagers from an impoverished area of Arizona who challenged and beat the MIT team in a national contest, a feat that drew national media attention.

“Passionate engineering knows no boundaries, and to celebrate these students’ impressive feat was the right thing to do,” says Ed Moriarty '76, during the filming. He first invited the team to MIT in 2004.

“Passionate engineering knows no boundaries, and to celebrate these students’ impressive feat was the right thing to do,” says Ed Moriarty ’76. From left, Oscar Vazquez, Lauren Cooney ’06, SM ’09, and Moriarty during filming. Photo: Camilla Brinkman.

Recently the Edgerton Center invited the MIT and Arizona team members to campus to film commentary on the impact of the Marine Advanced Technology Education ROV Competition on both teams. The filming captured comments by Kurt Stiehl ’07, Lauren Cooney ’06, Jordan Stanway ’06, and Thaddeus Stefanov-Wagner ’06 as well as the Carl Hayden Community High School team and coach.

“I was thrilled because I knew how much the invitation [to MIT] would mean to the Carl Hayden students. In 2004, they had not really had the opportunity to interact with the MIT team. But more importantly, as Oscar Vazquez later said, the invitation was such a sign of respect for what these boys and this team from Phoenix had accomplished,” said Mary Mazzio of 50 Eggs Films, who wrote and directed the film.

The Carl Hayden team had been invited to MIT to celebrate the tournament but they could not travel by plane because they were undocumented.

During the filming, each team commiserated about their mishaps at the 2004 competition.

The Carl Hayden team’s soldered robot components melted in the hot Arizona sun en route to the competition. MIT’s robot suffered catastrophic damage in transit and had to be rebuilt. Then, the day before the competition, the Carl Hayden team discovered that the mechanical housing of their robot was leaking. One team member came up with an ingenious solution—tampons as a plug.

“What the Carl Hayden team did was totally impressive,” said Stiehl, now a product designer at Apple, who credits landing his job to the hands-on experience he gained on the ROV team. “The practicalities of shipping products versus building a robot are surprisingly similar and I use everything from basic system architecture development to project scheduling and team building.”

“It’s still affecting my life, even 10 years after,” said Oscar Vazquez, a Carl Hayden alumnus. “It gave me a career in engineering; it helped me pay for college; it brought me to MIT today; it sent me on the right path.”

And the story is still unfolding. Along with Underwater Dreams, another film about the Carl Hayden team, starring George Lopez and Marisa Tomei, is set to be released in the fall.

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Professor Linda Griffith leads MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research, founded in 2009.

Professor Linda Griffith leads MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research, founded in 2009.

Update: Watch the MIT’s Research in Women’s Health webcast.

In the March 2014 Faculty Forum Online, Linda G. Griffith, director of MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research (CGR), shared new techniques for attacking endometriosis and research on systems biology and tissue engineering that has impact on clinical practice in gynecology. Follow the MIT Alumni Association on Twitter or use the hashtag #mitfaculty for live tweets during the event. Watch the archived webcast.

CGR brings together engineers, biologists, and clinicians to work on understanding of the basic biology, physiology, and pathophysiology of the female reproductive tract and the diagnosis and treatment of related diseases.

Griffin faced some of the tough issues CGR works on when she had her own breast cancer diagnosis. Read about her journey in the New York Times article, “Cancer Fight: Unclear Tests for New Drug.”