Pins passed out at Nerd Nite. Photo: Mary Lewey

Pins passed out at Nerd Nite. Photo: Mary Lewey

Can robots learn to bake cookies? Can ceramic filters make water drinkable in the developing world? MIT alumni Mario Bollini ’09, SM ’12 and Amelia Servi ’10, SM ‘13 shared insights on these topics at recent Nerd Nites, a popular event that showcases new research from MIT and other area universities.

The bonus? You can drink beer while you learn.

Over the past 10 years, Nerd Nite has grown from one grad student presenting evolutionary biology research at a Boston pub to monthly events in 80 cities around the world. There are Nerd Nites in Milan, Liberia, Detroit, Amsterdam, and Auckland. And if it’s not in your city, you can start one.

Typical Nites include a mix of hard science talks like membrane desalinization, social science presentations, such as the history of cycling in New England, and the (fake) history of Godzilla monsters.

Adrian Ward speaks at a special Nerd Nite held at the Oberon Theater on how the Internet is reshaping our lives. Photo: Mary Lewey

Adrian Ward speaks at a special Nerd Nite held at the Oberon Theater on the impact of the Internet. Photo: Mary Lewey

“People have always been interested in science, technology, and the humanities,” explained Boston Nerd Nite co-organizer Tim Sullivan. “They’ve also always been interested in bars and beer. Nerd Nite just puts those two things together.”

Boston’s Nerd Nite is held monthly at Middlesex Bar, located a stone’s throw away from MIT campus. The event usually attracts upwards of 200 people, many affiliated with MIT. “It’s a format that lends itself to the MIT community really well,” said Mary Lewey, Boston Nerd Nite co-organizer. “The intention is to learn from people rather than judge or criticize,” said Lewey.

Amelia Servi presents at Nerd Nite Boston. Photo: Mary Lewey

Amelia Servi presents at Nerd Nite Boston.
Photo: Mary Lewey

MIT alumni are frequent speakers both in Boston and Nites worldwide. “Presentations to people outside of my field, like my recent one at Nerd Nite, make me take a step back to look at my motivation for the work and all of the foundational work that went before mine,” said Amelia Servi ’10, SM ’13, who first attended a similar event in Phnom Penh. “I felt like people were interested and learned something, which is a very satisfying feeling as a speaker.”

In Boston, Maxim Lobovsky SM ’11, co-founder of Formlabs, walked Nerd Niters through his company’s process of inventing one of the first affordable 3D printers.

At a New York City Nerd Nite, Hesky Fisher ’02 talked about developing Plover, an open source stenography application.

And in Seattle, Liang Sim SM ’06 made the unlikely connection between salsa dancing and theories of engineering and management consulting. Any good salsa dancing presentation includes actual dancing, and Sim did not disappoint, dancing with wife, Eliza.

Does the popularity of this Boston-born event demonstrate an upsurge in nerd pride? Perhaps, but Sullivan argues that Boston has always been a hotbed for nerds. “If you are passionate about a topic and you take the time to learn more about it, you are a nerd,” explains Sullivan. “You are a geek.”

But there’s a difference between a geek and a nerd. You guessed it—that was a topic at a Nerd Nite event too.

Find the Nerd Nite in your area, present, or start your own. 


You may have seen Pantheon, the newest creation out of MIT Media Lab’s Macro Connection group, in the news lately. With the ability to rank globally famous people—Aristotle currently sits at number one—the platform has garnered a lot of attention. These rankings, however, are just one part of Pantheon.

A concept developed by Macro Connection’s Principal Investigator, César A. Hidalgo, which builds off his previous work with the Observatory of Economic Complexity and DataViva, Pantheon aims to map and visualize historical cultural production. Think of cultural production as contributions to our global culture, like Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone or Stephen King’s multitude of novels.

“The major insight at the project’s start was that a lot of things can count as culture, say Starbucks or blue jeans. Those things we can’t really measure, but we can measure Harry Potter as proxied by JK Rowling,” explains graduate student Kevin Hu ’13, who works with the Macro Connections group.

Consequently, cultural productions are represented in Pantheon’s database by the biographies of globally notable characters who have broken the boundaries of space, time, and language.

Pantheon then ranks, sorts, and visualizes the data of the 11,340 biographies sourced from Wikipedia that meet this criteria. For the language criteria, a biography must appear in Wikipedia in more than 25 different languages to be included in Pantheon’s database. Pantheon’s space criteria relates to how far a notable figure’s influence has reached around the world. Lastly, time helps to weed out cultural one-hit wonders that may seem huge in a specific year, but lose their cultural relevance beyond that.

With this information, Pantheon can then provide visitors myriad visualizations. It can showcase the cultural output of a country based on profession—the US is tops for actors. Or rank the most famous gymnasts of all time—Věra Čáslavská of the Czech Republic claims the number one spot.

Beyond the compelling visualizations, Hu says that the ultimate goal of Pantheon is to give everyone the chance to discover and draw conclusions from data it provides: “Anyone with a web browser and internet connection can learn the stories contained in our data.”


After 12 years as an architect, Gilad Rosenzweig MCP ’13 knew he wanted to work on a larger scale. “Not larger buildings,” he says, “but to be involved in the development and improvement of cities.”

Rosenzweig saw his opportunity in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Once known as Boston’s “second downtown” the neighborhood is currently among the poorest in the city.


Smarter in the City’s logo highlights its unique location.

“I was doing some work in the neighborhood on the nonprofit development side and noticing the impact that development had in the neighborhood. It might be good for physical qualities, but not necessarily for people who live there,” he says.

This prompted his idea for Smarter in the City: a high-tech incubator for inner city neighborhoods.

Rosenzweig sees Smarter in the City as a tool to improve neighborhoods from the inside out.  According to his website, “We are specifically addressing the lack of opportunities for computer science and digital media entrepreneurs in lower-income neighborhoods and minority communities.”

To ensure that Dudley Square residents benefit from Smarter in the City, Rosenzweig engaged with community members and local politicians to get the word out. “I thought ‘what is the big change here and who needs to be involved?’” he explains.

Set to open its doors in July, Smarter in the City’s first class will have four startups—businesses ranging from urban journalism to a social network. Ideally, as each startup expands, the new jobs created will be filled by residents of neighborhoods like Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester.


A glance at where statups are located in Greater Boston. Credit: Techscence @Boston

“You don’t bring people from outside to change the community. You change it from inside. It all comes down to median income and education—the startup tech industry can deliver on both,” Rosenzweig says.

Rosenzweig, who is getting support from the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, credits his coursework at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning for his problem-solving approach to Smarter in the City. He says, “My ideas are coming both from the community and economic mindset, but not doing one without the other.”



Research focused on some women’s health issues, such as breast cancer, receives significant attention in scientific and funding communities while other areas, such as gynecological disorders, garner much less interest and support.

These disparities led MIT Department of Biological Engineering Professor Linda Griffith to co-found the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research, an interdisciplinary research group that brings new engineering and science approaches into the underserved area of gynepathology.

In the March 2014 Faculty Forum Online, Griffith shared insights into new techniques for attacking endometriosis and discussed research on systems biology and tissue engineering that has impact on clinical practice in gynecology.

Following her comments, Griffith—a renowned expert on regenerative medicine—took live questions from the worldwide MIT community. Enjoy a sample or watch the full webcast then continue the discussion in the comments below.


Linda Griffith

About Linda Griffith

Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering Linda Griffith’s research focuses on tissue engineering, which the manipulation of cells using to form multi-dimensional structures that carry out the functions of normal tissue in vitro or in vivo. Her work focuses on controlling the spatial and temporal presentation of molecular ligands and physical cues which are known to influence cell behavior.

Griffith is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the Popular Science Brilliant 10 Award, NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, and the MIT Class of 1960 Teaching Innovation Award. As chair of MIT’s Undergraduate Curriculum Committee for Biological Engineering, she led development of the Biological Engineering undergraduate degree program—MIT’s first new undergraduate major in more than 40 years.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgia Tech and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, both in chemical engineering.


MIT Department of Biological Engineering profile
MIT Center for Gynepathology Research

Cancer Fight: Unclear Tests for New Drug,” New York Times
MIT bioengineer works to unravel endometriosis,” Boston Globe
Scientist takes aim at her longtime silent scourge,” Boston Globe

About Faculty Forum Online

Eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 50,000 times.

For the 2013-2014 season, the Alumni Association will produce three public service-themed evening editions, titled “One Community Together in Service.”


faculty_forum_online_logo_gradientNow in its fourth year, the Alumni Association’s Faculty Forum Online (FFO) series gives MIT alumni and friends who are away from Cambridge an on-campus look at ongoing research and an opportunity to interact with Institute faculty, scientists, and researchers.

Each FFO is a 30-minute video podcast that features MIT experts discussing a timely and relevant topic and answering real-time from the online audience. The Association hosted seven FFOs in 2013 whose archived version have been viewed more than 10,000 times.

  • Privacy in the Digital Realm (Nov. 2013): Professor Hal Abelson PhD ’73 discussed the challenges of digital privacy and how the flow of open information can be globally cultivated.
  • Big Data’s Brave New World (Oct. 2013): Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland PhD ’82 talked about the explosion of mobile devices and how to apply data analysis to politics, markets, and society.
  • Kim Jong-un and the Danger of War on the Korean Peninsula (June 2013): Research Associate James Walsh PhD ’00 shared different approaches to understanding North Korea and its ongoing displays of threatening actions.
  • New Research on the Brain (May 2013): Professor James DiCarlo, head of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, discussed the department’s pioneering work on brain research.
  • Climate Change Policy that Makes Economic Sense (April 2013): Professor Christopher Knittel discussed consumer and company reactions to energy price fluctuations and its implications on effective environmental policies.
  • New Directions in Climate Research (Feb. 2013): Professor Kerry Emanuel ’76, PhD ’78 shares a new approach to climate science that emphasizes basic understanding over black box simulation.

For the first time, the Alumni Association supplemented its monthly FFOs with a special evening edition—MIT at Work in the World—that featured Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80, Dean Christine Ortiz, and Dean Sally Susnowitz.

Also in 2013, as part of President L. Rafael Reif’s listening tour of campus and alumni voices, the MIT Alumni Association hosted three half-hour interviews with the president that were webcast live exclusively to the alumni community.

  • Advancing MIT’s Research Mission: President Reif talked about championing basic research and MIT’s commitment to the research enterprise.
  • Transforming MIT’s Educational Experience: The president discussed reinventing the residential research university for the future.
  • Strengthening MIT’s Global Impact: The president explained how MIT is realizing its global potential by fostering innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, collaboration, and diversity.

In addition to the live webcasts, the FFO archive and interviews with President Reif are available for viewing. After viewing the chats, continue the discussion at Slice of MIT by posting in the comments.

The 2014 season kicks off in February. To keep discussions relevant, FFO guests are announced one week in advance of the webcast. Visit the Faculty Forum Online page to view the entire archive and find out more information.


What makes up a city? In the recent MIT course, In this Building: Multimedia and Place-based Storytelling, architecture and urban planning students became urban storytellers, learning how to uncover the personal side of everyday Boston storefronts and homes.

Their resulting multimedia projects revealed the cooperative culture of MIT’s PIKA dorm, the upward path of a homeless addict turned Dorchester home owner and family man, and a South End sandwich shop with a clientele for the history books.

Rindge Towers

Rindge Towers Photo: Ashwin Balakrishnan

Graduate students Ashwin Balakrishnan and Rachel Finkelstein reported on the controversies surrounding Rindge Towers, the largest affordable housing development in Cambridge. Opened in 1971, critics still dismiss the three 22-story buildings as “urine towers”—an unwelcome eyesore to the surrounding Cambridge neighborhood. But for residents, the towers’ 504 apartments are home to a rich melting pot of diverse cultures, ages, and experiences.

“The people here are my family,” remarked Tenant Association President Pat Casola in an interview with the students. Under her organizing force, tenants prevented the mid-1990s market-rate conversion of all apartments, which would have forced many to find new homes.

899-907 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

899-907 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

Graduate students Lawrence Barriner, Kirsten Greco, and Ruth Sappelt uncovered the colorful past of 899-907 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, Cambridge. Home to Toscanini’s Ice Cream, Cinderella’s Pizza, and at one time a brothel, this post-Civil War, mixed-use building sits on real estate that “for many years has been worth more down that up,” according to owner Patrick W. Barrett III.

The building’s uncertain future demonstrates a common challenge for independent mom and pop shops struggling to compete with more powerful big box chains. “You see this all the time in changing neighborhoods where things that seem like irreplaceable institutions go away,” said Toscanini’s owner Gus Rancatore.

Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe Photo: Carmela Zakon

Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe
Photo: Carmela Zakon

Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe is another irreplaceable institution that graduate student Carmela Zakon and Nse Umoh Esema MCP ’12 explored.

Located at 429 Columbus Avenue in Boston’s South End, the 86-year old restaurant was one of the first to serve black customers and became a popular late night hang out for Boston jazz musicians and the Black Porters Union. Legend has it that a young Sammy Davis Jr. tap danced in the restaurant’s entry way for extra change.

“You have completely changed my perspective on what a city is,” said Dewald LaGrange, project manager at Epi Use, who attended the final project presentations. “In order to do proper city planning, you have to understand people.”

In this Building was taught by MIT Associate Professor J. Phillip Thomson, Boston Globe Assistant Metro Editor Steve Wilmsen, and Alexa Mills MCP ’08.


Guest Post from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering
In theory (and in miniature), they can – but this isn’t something your average helicopter is built to do. Stunt shows are, of course, another story…


Photo: Rae Allen

To gain altitude and remain airborne, helicopters rely on rotor blades that generate vertical thrust. So what happens if a helicopter goes belly up? In theory, such a helicopter could stay aloft, maintains Emilio Frazzoli, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, whose research centers on improving the maneuverability of next-generation autonomous helicopters and other vehicles.

An acrobatic airplane can fly upside down by tilting its nose slightly upwards and using its wings to generate lift while it’s inverted—even though the wings are built to do it with the other face up. Theoretically, an inverted helicopter could use its rotors in a similar way: instead of positioning the rotor blades to generate thrust toward the top of the helicopter (as in normal operations), the pilot could orient them to produce thrust toward the bottom of the helicopter, thus keeping it aloft when inverted.

“Imagine you’re attached to a rotor blade,” Frazzoli suggests. “In order to generate lift upwards, you have to tilt the blade a little bit upwards. To generate lift toward the bottom of the helicopter, you have to tilt the blade a little bit downwards.”

Upside-down flight is actually quite common among model radio-controlled helicopters, Frazzoli observes. Go to your nearest RC airfield and you’ll likely encounter at least one enthusiast flying his model chopper upside down. Once the helicopter is upside down, then it is controlled in pretty much the same way as if it were right-side-up—except that the controls are inverted. For instance, the pilot would need to push the stick backward to make the helicopter move forward, and decrease the thrust to make it gain altitude.

However, there’s a world of difference between a commercial helicopter and these model versions. The higher mass and complex design of real helicopters make flying them upside down neither safe nor feasible.

To enable a commercial helicopter to fly upside down, manufacturers would need to make its rotor blades more rigid so as not to flex too close to the main body of the helicopter (otherwise they could rip off their own fuselage or other critical components). They would also need to redesign the joint that connects the rotor blades with the rest of the vehicle so it could bear the load of an upturned helicopter. Finally, they would need to develop new controls to allow the rotor blades to tilt downwards and reconfigure the engine so that fuel and lubricants could be distributed properly while the helicopter was inverted.

Even without these changes, many of today’s helicopters can fly upside down for seconds at a time, notes Frazzoli. “Military and acrobatic helicopter pilots often perform loops and barrel rolls in which their vehicle momentarily flies upside down,” he says. “During that time, the rotor still generates thrust toward the top of the helicopter, so the pilot must maintain sufficient momentum and altitude to remain airborne.”

Watch for that trick at your next local air show.

Authored by Mark Dwortzan, this Ask an Engineer was originally published on September 29, 2009. Thanks to Brian LeFloch of Hopewell Junction, NY, for his question. Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions, and ask your own. 


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faculty_forum_online_logo_gradientFor most Americans, handheld computing and smart phones are a daily necessity and have helped create a world of near-constant communication.

One consequence of this interconnected society is privacy—or the lack thereof. Recent headlines about mass surveillance have highlighted problems with the infrastructure of virtual space.

In the November 2013 Faculty Forum Online, Professor Hal Abelson PhD ’73 discussed the challenges of digital privacy, how the flow of open information can be globally cultivated, and the cultural and political disruptions caused by the information explosion.

Following his comments, Abelson took live questions from the worldwide MIT community. Enjoy a sample or watch the full webcast then continue the discussion in the comments below.

Is online shopping dangerous?

About Hal Abelson PhD ’73

Hal Abelson PhD '73

Hal Abelson PhD ’73

Harold (Hal) Abelson is the MIT Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He is a cochair of the MIT Council on Educational Technology, which oversees MIT’s strategic educational technology activities and investments, and helps lead Institute initiatives such as MIT OpenCourseWare and DSpace.

A longtime leader in using computation as a conceptual framework in teaching, Abelson is a founding director of Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Free Software Foundation, and a former director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. He helped develop the MIT App Inventor, a web-based system that allows non-developers to design and create mobile applications.

From 2009-2010, Abelson was a visiting faculty member at Google. In addition to his doctorate in mathematics from MIT, he holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University.


Q & A with Hal Abelson,” Research at Google
Hal Abelson Q & A,” Code Quarterly: The Hackademic Journal
MIT’s glorious nerd heritage must not be forgotten,” The Tech, January 1990
Media Lab biography: Hal Abelson

About Faculty Forum Online

Eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 50,000 times.


Guitarist Steve Stine lives in North Dakota, but he teaches guitar lessons to students all over the world—all thanks to LessonFace, an online music education platform founded by Claire Cunningham MBA ’09. Cunningham already worked in the online education field when she first heard about musicians using Skype as a tool to teach their craft, and she saw an opportunity to provide teachers with a platform.

“I did some research and saw that the technology was there,” Cunningham told Slice. “It was becoming very consumer-friendly and mainstream to video conference at a high-quality level.” She left her job to found LessonFace in January of 2012; by September of that same year, she launched the website. Six weeks ago, LessonFace expanded to include classes designed specifically for young children.

Cunningham’s company emphasizes the importance of real-time, one-on-one interactions between teacher and student. “We believe that is the thing that we’re really doing differently from YouTube videos or other prerecorded content,” says Cunningham. “As excellent as [prerecorded content] may be, it doesn’t have the live teacher-student interaction that you’d get from a classroom or any other live expert tutorial.”

Teachers on LessonFace hail from all over the world, and so do the students. That’s part of what makes LessonFace work so well, says Cunningham. “Traditionally, music lessons happen between 3-6 or 3-7 p.m. in whatever time zone you’re in. The best teachers get booked up between those hours. So, being able to access people in other time zones opens up the schedule a lot more.”

LessonFace also offers group classes, which “allow people to try it out without the intensity of the one-on-one mentorship model. They’re a little bit less expensive,” Cunningham explains.

Want to take a LessonFace class? Enter the offer code “gtr101″ at check-out to receive $20 off of any lesson, such as Steve Stine’s four-week, introductory guitar group class starting on November 16. Want to become a LessonFace music teacher? Read the approval guidelines to make sure you qualify, then fill out an application.


Answers are coming in to the large questions raised by the task force charged with reinventing residential education at MIT. And the first results are a series of interactive graphics that captures the nearly 200 ideas submitted to the Idea Bank by faculty, students, staff, and alumni. No surprise—alumni were, by far, the most enthusiastic participants.

future-MIT_10-18-13_2What can you do?

  • Alumni can go to the Future of MIT Education website and mouse over the circles to get a stream of ideas or demographic data on who has submitted ideas.
  • Browse Trending Data or explore ideas by these key areas: global implications of edX ; a new financial model for education; and facilities for the future.
  • Follow @FutureMIT on Twitter for daily insights.
  • Haven’t shared your thoughts yet? Email the task force leaders at mitedu-cochairs@mit.edu.

In an MIT News story, President L. Rafael Reif outlined his intent: “To stay true to our educational values, we must seize the opportunity to reimagine what we do and how we do it … We are in the midst of an educational revolution.”

Expect a preliminary report later this fall. Meanwhile the task force is soliciting ideas from a Corporation Advisory Group and an Alumni Advisory Group, chaired by John Jarve ’78, SM ’79, president of the MIT Alumni Association.