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Earth to Freshmen

This fall MIT introduced a freshman program called Terrascope. Students enrolled in the year-long program take two unique classes that were designed to help freshmen apply knowledge from their core science courses to solving a complex, earth-systems-based problem.

Led by Sallie Chisholm of the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Biology, and Kip Hodges PhD ‘82 of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Terrascope is part of MIT’s new Earth System Initiative. The initiative combines science and engineering to heighten understanding of the ways Earth and its inhabitants affect one another.

Hodges says Terrascope grew out of Solving Complex Problems, a course he developed in 2000, which brings project-based learning to the freshman curriculum. Each year’s class explores a specific problem in detail, studying case histories and developing creative solutions. This year students have been asked to develop a way to monitor the Amazon rain forest. In the spring the freshmen will continue with Introduction to Earth System Science and Engineering, in which they will design and build computer simulations and experimental tools to implement their monitoring solutions.

Waltzing through MIT

Boris Berdnikov ‘98, SM ‘00 and his partner, computer science doctoral candidate Sofya Raskhodnikova ‘97, took top spots for MIT’s ballroom dance team at the annual competition of the United States Amateur Ballroom Dance Association last August. This year five couples from MIT placed in nine categories.

Berdnikov and Raskhodnikova waltzed their way to the semifinals and competed against 12 other couples in the novice and prechampionship categories in the standard dances, which include fox trot, tango, and waltz. This was their fourth visit to the national competition since 1998, when they first dropped in on an MIT Ballroom Dance Club workshop.

Since then they have developed a repertoire of dance steps. At nationals, where contestants don’t know what music the judges will choose, dancers must think quickly and make their moves look effortless. The two hope to compete next year in the competition’s highest championship category. “We’re always practicing, always working toward some goal,” says Berdnikov. “I get a kick out of moving to music. There is satisfaction from performing and competing. It’s fun.”

Nanoengineering Cartilage Repair

People who suffer from arthritis and athletes who have torn cartilage may one day find relief through nanotechnology. At MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, researchers led by Alan Grodzinsky ‘69, SB/SM ‘71, ScD ‘74 and Shuguang Zhang are developing a cartilage repair technique that may eliminate the need for prosthetic joints and complicated surgery. They are growing cartilage cells in a nanoengineered gel that they ultimately hope to use to replace the damaged tissue in human joints.

The procedure relies on a new class of biomaterials based on self-assembling peptides, or protein fragments. Zhang discovered the peptides several years ago. When the peptides are mixed in just the right way, they automatically assemble themselves into specific nanoscale structures such as sheets and interweaving fibers. Scientists can take advantage of this behavior to develop extraordinary new materials. In the case of cartilage repair, the researchers coaxed the peptides into a water-based gel; the peptide gel acts as a “scaffold” for cartilage cells. Injected into small spaces such as joints, the peptide scaffold holds transplanted cartilage cells in place. It allows the tissue to grow and take hold while the framework itself slowly disintegrates, leaving healthy tissue behind.

The design flexibility of the peptide gel offers a critical advantage over other materials that might have been used, Grodzinsky says. By tinkering with the molecular structure of the peptides, scientists can tailor the gel’s performance to specific needs. For instance, they could add growth factor hormones that would hasten tissue regeneration. The researchers plan to begin testing the material in animal joints by the end of this year. With luck, the technique may be available for treatment of injured people within five to 10 years.

Global Gadget Games

While sports fans around the globe were recovering from World Cup fever, another athletic tournament was focusing international attention on MIT. The players in MIT’s games, however, were robots.

Last August MIT hosted the International Design Contest, an annual event that brought students from England, Germany, Japan, Brazil, France, and South Korea to the Institute for a two-week challenge in engineering and international cooperation. “This contest represents the best and the brightest all the world has to offer,” says Alex Slocum ‘82, SM ‘83, PhD ‘85, the mechanical engineering professor who organized this year’s contest. Slocum is the lecturer for 2.007 (formerly known as 2.70), the MIT class on which the International Design Contest is modeled.

Top universities, including MIT, England’s University of Cambridge, and Japan’s Tokyo Institute of Technology, sent participants. Each student was assigned to one of eight multinational teams. Each team built a remote-control robot from a standard kit of raw materials. To communicate ideas, divide the labor, and build the robots, teammates had to overcome language and cultural barriers.

The machines competed in a tournament on the final day. Robots scored points by pushing balls into a bin and rotating an enormous vertical pendulum. The winning team consisted of Gary Hill of Germany, Julien Barrier of France, Alexandre Takeshi Ushima of Brazil, Eo Jin Park of South Korea, and MIT Course XVI junior Martin Jonikas.

Scientists Study Bacteria to Save Environment

Researchers at MIT and Harvard University are studying three microscopic bacteria that may provide solutions to some big problems, including global warming and toxic waste.

Each of the three bacteria has unique traits. Prochlorococcus, which performs 20 to 30 percent of ocean photosynthesis, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Pseudomonas has a distinctive ability to handle toxic wastes. Caulobacter can scavenge compounds in low concentrations, and already it is being used for sewage treatment. The team will work to find all the proteins the bacteria make and to understand how they respond to their environments.

Sallie Chisholm, an MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering and biology, says that because these bacteria are so simple and abundant, they make ideal “model cells” that will aid the study of larger ecosystems and higher life forms. A five-year, $15 million grant from the Genomes to Life Program of the U.S. Department of Energy is funding the study.

New Ammunition Against Malaria

Malaria causes at least two million deaths every year, and despite years of research, there is still no effective vaccine against the single-cell, mosquito-borne parasite that causes it. Now researchers at MIT and Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research have developed a synthetic version of a malaria toxin that has proved an extremely effective vaccine in mice, according to a study published in Nature last August.

MIT chemist Peter Seeberger and Australian microbiologist Louis Schofield hope their project will yield an effective human vaccine. Schofield believes the vaccine will help block even the most severe-and often fatal-symptoms of malaria, including fluid in the lungs and cerebral malaria, in which infected red blood cells block blood flow to the brain.

About 10 years ago Schofield isolated a complex sugar from the most lethal malaria parasite; he believes this sugar is a toxin responsible for many of malaria’s worst symptoms. Using a device he developed, Seeberger has made the sugar from scratch, quickly and in quantities that are large enough to test as a vaccine. Seventy-five percent of the mice immunized with the synthetic toxin survived malaria infection; those that were not vaccinated died.

Over the next year the team plans to test the antitoxin vaccine in primates. But even with good results, it may be 10 years before the vaccine is fully tested and approved.

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