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News from campus
September 1, 2002


Biologists at MIT have engineered a nano material that behaves like soap and could strip away grease more efficiently than conventional detergents. Shuguang Zhang, associate director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering, and his colleagues created the material from fragments of proteins called peptides, which self-assemble into different structures. In this case, the peptides formed nanotubes.

Instead of using naturally occurring proteins, the researchers employed peptides synthesized from scratch-each with a hydrophobic (water-repelling) tail and a hydrophilic (water-attracting) head. When placed in water, the peptides formed rings, which then stacked on top of each other to form nanotubes 30 to 50 nanometers in diameter-about the size of a virus. While other research groups have made so-called surface-active agents-or “surfactants”-from organic materials, Zhang is the first to make a protein-based surfactant, which he calls a more gentle and less toxic material. Such protein structures could have other applications, as, for example, vesicles for delivering drugs to the body and scaffolds for building nanoscale electronic devices. Researchers could tailor the peptides to bind to semiconducting nanocrystals. The peptides could direct the nanoparticles into a desired configuration-say, a circuit-and, once removed, would leave behind the final device.

Beaver Tales

The right paw of MIT’s mascot Tim the Beaver returned home safely last April after a month in captivity at Harvard University. Harvard students stole the paw on March 17, when a group of MIT sophomores took the beaver suit to Harvard Square for some impromptu high jinks. Wearing the suit, one of the students mounted the statue of John Harvard-but not before removing the beaver’s furry hands and feet to gain a better foothold. While he posed for pictures, a male Harvard student snatched one of the paws, which lay unattended on the ground.

In the following weeks, inside sources at Harvard disclosed the thief’s identity to MIT students. Shortly thereafter, a group of 25 MIT would-be vigilantes stormed the suspect’s dormitory, only to be chased away by a resident. Finally, John Fries, a junior in the department of mathematics, posed as a reporter for the student paper the Harvard Crimson and staged a false interview with the Harvard thief and his housemates. As Fries held the paw while ostensibly framing a triumphant photo in front of the Harvard statue, he turned and fled. The Harvard students chased him through the yard, but to no avail. Exhausted yet victorious, Fries returned to MIT that evening, restoring both paw and school honor.

Lemelson-MIT Prize Goes to Segway Inventor

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, was awarded the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize this spring, the world’s largest single award for invention. However, despite his recent claim to fame-the Segway self-balancing scooter promises to dramatically reduce pollution and traffic congestion within cities-the judges’ decision was based on Kamen’s innovations in the medical field and his work in fostering interest in science and technology among young people.

Among his more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents, one of Kamen’s most notable inventions is the first wearable infusion pump-a breakthrough for patients requiring continuous doses of medication. For instance, the device can dispense steady streams of insulin to the body, relieving many diabetics from daily injections. In a similar vein, Kamen later developed a portable peritoneal dialysis machine for patients suffering from kidney failure. Instead of making frequent trips to the hospital, patients using Kamen’s machine can undergo dialysis in their own homes. Kamen also invented the Ibot, an electric wheelchair that can climb stairs and stand upright on two wheels.

According to the judges, what set Kamen apart from other talented inventors was his work as founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The organization’s annual robotics competition, which teams professional engineers with high-school students, draws thousands of participants from across the country. Kamen is donating his prize money to the organization, which FIRST national advisor and MIT professor of mechanical engineering Woodie Flowers, SM ‘68, ME ‘71, PhD ‘73, hopes will bring more attention to the program. “In my opinion, FIRST has a better chance at changing the culture in our country in a positive way than any other program I know,” says Flowers.

Power in Numbers

A team of undergraduate students from MIT claimed second prize at the 26th annual International Collegiate Programming Contest world finals in Honolulu last March-MIT’s best performance at the competition in more than 20 years. Though Institute teams regularly win at the regional level, they have not placed higher than fifth at the finals since 1978.

Each year, 20 to 30 top young programmers at MIT try out for the chance to represent the school. Mock contests are used to identify the sharpest students. This year, coaches Martin Rinard, associate professor in computer science, and Vladimir Kiriansky, a senior in the department (and a two-year contest veteran himself) selected three students: Percy Liang ‘04, John Danaher ‘04 and Reid Barton ‘05. The trio practiced every weekend for months before the competition, preparing to face their world-class opponents.

Contenders from 1,300 universities and 67 countries participated in the contest, which is organized by the Association for Computing Machinery and sponsored by IBM. Competing teams tackled a series of nine programming problems in five hours. The judges ranked the teams by the number of correct solutions they submitted, and ties were awarded to the fastest. Shanghai Jiao Tong University claimed first prize; the University of Waterloo in Ontario received third. First-place winners each received $10,000 and a new laptop. Liang, Danaher and Barton received $2,000 and a laptop-not to mention a spring break in Hawaii.

Virtual Teaching in Africa

Last spring and summer, MIT offered a computer science course over the Internet for the first time, to more than 150 African students, through a partnership with the African Virtual University-a nonprofit organization that operates learning centers across the continent. The course-on the Java programming language-was based loosely on an introductory course taught at MIT. It included six hours of videotaped lectures supplemented by online access to teaching assistants and discussion forums. Steven Lerman ‘72, SM ‘73, PhD ‘75, director of the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives at MIT, and Judson Harward, one of the initiative’s principal research scientists, concluded the course with two live videoconferences. From Ethiopia to Ghana, 13 learning centers participated in the course, which gave students access to training and resources that aren’t available in many sub-Saharan universities. Students who completed the course received certificates from MIT and the African Virtual University. MIT is currently examining preexisting materials that could be adapted for future courses.

Memory Expansion

As part of a large effort to accelerate brain research at MIT, the Center for Learning and Memory is gearing up to delve deeper into the complexities of the human mind. Last May, the center received $50 million to construct a cutting-edge research facility and establish four new permanently endowed professorships. The center has also been renamed the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, after the Picower Foundation of Palm Beach, FL, which donated the funds-the single largest donation from a private foundation in the Institute’s history.

The center’s director, Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, says the support will enable his center to speed up research on topics such as brain development and the roles specific genes play in learning and acquiring memories (left). One of the four new faculty members will also have the task of focusing on specific diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and other psychotic brain disorders. The ultimate hope is that basic research like this will lead to new diagnostic tests and more-effective therapies.

Of the $50 million, $30 million will go toward construction of the facility, to be housed in MIT’s new brain research complex. That complex, set to open in 2005, will serve the Picower Center, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Martinos Center for Functional and Structural Biomedical Imaging.

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