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England Calling

From a pool of more than 1,000 applicants, two MIT students were selected as winners of this year’s Marshall Scholarships, which fund U.S. graduate students’ study in the United Kingdom. Doctoral candidate Samidh Chakrabarti ‘02 and David Foxe ‘03 will use their scholarships beginning this fall.

Chakrabarti earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and a second bachelor’s degree in brain and cognitive sciences last year. Now a PhD candidate in artificial intelligence, Chakrabarti will take a break from his MIT studies to attend the University of Oxford, where he’ll study the history of science. “Ultimately, I want to be a science policy advisor,” he says. “I hope my career will afford me the opportunity to champion science education programs.”

Foxe, a double major in music and architecture, will study at the University of Cambridge with the goal of becoming a licensed architect. “With architecture,” Foxe says, “one learns so much by simply being able to experience a new environment.” An accomplished photographer, Foxe has displayed his architectural photos in the Rotch Library, and his designs and musical compositions are archived at the MIT Museum, where they have been exhibited.

The List in Venice

An exhibition organized by MIT’s List Center for the Visual Arts will be the only representative from the United States this summer in the world’s most visible contemporary-art exhibition, the Venice Biennale. The Institute’s curator for public art, Kathleen Goncharov, will be the sole curator of the exhibition at the U.S. pavilion. A national panel of museum professionals selected Goncharov last fall to implement her proposal for an original installation by Fred Wilson, a U.S. artist who creates beautifully rendered mock-art objects.

Wilson, who is of African-American and Caribbean descent, is known for works that question truth and established culture through issues of racial bias, gender, and class. His Biennale installation will examine the lives of the Moors who came to Venice as slaves, servants, and traders, and who were depicted in numerous Renaissance paintings of the city. The installation will include paintings equipped with motion sensors that allow the art to “talk” to viewers, mannequins of Moors who look as if they have stepped out of Renaissance paintings, and a black Murano-glass chandelier commissioned for the installation.

Goncharov, who is being assisted by List Center staff, says working at the Venice Biennale is a great honor, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Biennale opens June 14 and runs through November 2.

Arguing to the Top

MIT’s parliamentary debate team won the North American Championships at Johns Hopkins University in February. The win highlighted a strong season during which the team made the final round in nine consecutive American Parliamentary Debate Association tournaments. Among the triumphs was a particularly sweet victory over McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, “unfriendly territory for Americans,” according to team president Patrick Nichols ‘03.

The team’s journey to the championship over debaters from both the United States and Canada began with its first win at a tournament three years ago. Since that time, seniors Nichols, Adam Unikowsky, and Phillipe Larochelle have led the group to numerous victories. This season those victories included first-place finishes at Vassar College and Cornell, Wesleyan, and Columbia universities.

In February, Larochelle, a physics major, was ranked number one in the debate association’s Speaker of the Year standings, and all three students were listed in the top 10. “We’re three seniors who all just have good luck,” says Nichols, who ranked fourth. Unikowsky, who, with Nichols, majors in electrical engineering and computer science, held the number 10 spot. Freshman Ajay Dave ranked second in Novice of the Year standings.

The Speaker of the Year is chosen on the basis of individual performance. At each tournament, the top four speakers receive points that, according to a graded scale, count toward the award. At the end of the season, the points from each debater’s best six finishes are counted, and the student with the most points wins the award.

The Institute’s parliamentary debate team formed in 1991. However, MIT has had a debate team off and on since the 1960s.

Rejected Research

MIT turned down $404,000 in research funding from the National Security Agency last fall, rather than grant the U.S. government the right to screen foreign nationals seeking to work on the project. The research on advanced computer architecture, which would not have been classified work, was to be carried out at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by senior research scientist Thomas Knight ‘69, SM ‘79, PhD ‘83.

The decision to reject the money is consistent with MIT’s policy on research grants, says Rodney Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab.

“We won’t let a sponsor-federal or nonfederal-tell us who can work on a research program,” says Paul Powell, assistant director of the Office of Sponsored Programs. Similar conflicts have arisen in the past, he adds, but “this is the first time we’ve walked away.”

Given that government agencies provide the bulk of MIT’s research budget,
Powell says, the decision reflects a need to protect the openness of scientific research in today’s sensitive political climate.

Cooperation between university representatives and government officials, particularly in the Department of Defense, is important for future compromises on this issue, Powell says.

So far, Knight has not found funding for his project from any other sources. Reached by e-mail, he wrote that “more publicity” on this incident “is probably good.”

Fiber Perfect

In the realm of fiber optics, where light signals are transmitted along glass strands, transparency is key. The more transparent the wire, the better the signal. But now, assistant professor Yoel Fink, PhD ‘00, and his team from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Research Laboratory of Electronics have created a new optical fiber that turns its nose up at transparency.

Unlike conventional solid-core fiber optics, Fink’s fiber has a hollow core. The tunnel is lined with a highly reflective surface Fink helped invent in 1998. This surface, which can be adjusted to reflect certain wavelengths of light, while speeding others along, makes the fiber tunable to different applications.

One use could be producing safer, more flexible, and more precise surgical lasers. Few optical fibers can handle the heat of such high-powered lasers without burning up. However, in a paper published in Nature, Fink and his team proved their fiber is not damaged by high temperatures. The fiber could also trump the status quo in telecommunications, where optical fibers have been replacing copper wires. For this application, Fink says, his fibers may have some relevance, “but at this point, only time will tell.”

Saving a Sinking Treasure

Since the early 1990s four MIT professors have been helping with a public works project to protect Venice, Italy, from rising sea levels. Their years of technical evaluations, environmental assessments, and legal struggles have culminated in a plan for underwater mobile floodgates.

The idea is to install 79 gates-each about 30 meters high and 20 meters wide-on the ocean floor at three inlets along the lagoon that surrounds the city. The inlets are the main links between the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian Lagoon. Each gate will be connected to the ocean floor by a hinge on the seabed. When filled with air, the gates will rise several meters above sea level, temporarily damming the inlets and protecting the city from floods.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Rafael Bras ‘72, SM ‘74, ScD ‘75, chairs the project’s assessment committee, which also includes professor emeritus Donald Harleman, SM ‘47, ScD ‘50, and earth sciences professor Paola Rizzoli. Bras says the gates are especially suited to Venice because they allow for navigation through the inlets, take up none of the city’s limited land space, and do not detract visually from Venice’s landscape. Given these considerations, the gates are “the best solution to stop the flooding immediately and to prevent further deterioration of the city and its treasures,” says civil engineering professor Chiang Mei, who has been consulting and conducting research on the engineering of the gates since 1993.

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