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Engineering for the Arts

At MIT, archaeology is studied in an innovative way: it is combined with materials science and engineering. Four faculty members are teaching that methodology to liberal-arts educators from around the country. The goal is to encourage these arts teachers to use engineering to enhance their students’ knowledge and skills.

This month the second Summer Institute in Materials Science and Material Culture will bring 15 college teachers to MIT for two weeks of laboratory-based courses. The educators will participate in hands-on sessions in ancient rubber processing, brick making, metallurgy, and glassmaking. The classes will demonstrate how MIT teaches engineering concepts within an archaeological context.

Archaeology professors Heather Lechtman and Dorothy Hosler inaugurated the summer institute last
year with the help of a three-year, $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research. They have also helped create a new subfield of archaeology that relies upon materials science and engineering. “Science is already one of the liberal arts.’ Engineering, as we define it and practice it, ought to be also,” Lechtman says.

A Drop to Drink

Each year, water-borne diseases kill an estimated three million people and sicken more than two billion more. One method of decontaminating disease-fouled water uses solar rays, but it works only in parts of the world that get plenty of sunlight. Now an MIT doctoral candidate has found an efficient way to determine whether solar disinfection will work in a given area.

For his master’s project in civil and environmental engineering, which he described in the January issue of Water Research, Peter Oates, Mng ‘01, developed a mathematical model that suggests that in Haiti, solar disinfection can be used year-round. He “went to the NASA data that averages the amount of solar radiation on the planet and came up with a simple model to predict whether it is worth looking into solar disinfection in a certain region,” says Oates’s advisor, Professor Martin Polz. Solar disinfection relies solely on the heat and ultraviolet radiation of the sun to make water stored in transparent containers drinkable.

Oates says MIT students have used his model to evaluate solar disinfection for other regions, including Nepal. But he favors prudence when using it. “Because we’re dealing with human health, I would err on the cautious side,” he says.

Fluid Flow

At its annual meeting last fall, the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics selected a short video by Markus Zahn, professor of electrical engineering, and Cory Lorenz ‘03 as one of five winning entries in its Gallery of Fluid Motion. The video, which captures the pair’s discovery of a ferrofluid’s unusual ability to flow into complex designs, will be featured in the September 2003 issue of Physics of Fluids. It will appear alongside the other winning entries, which include a video by mechanical engineering professor Gareth McKinley, PhD ‘91, and a poster by associate math professor John Bush.

The gallery was an assemblage of 25 poster and video entries that demonstrate fluid flow phenomena. Entries were judged on such criteria as originality, the ability to convey information, and artistic content.

Zahn and Lorenz’s groundbreaking video shows a drop of ferrofluid-liquid containing magnetic particles-that has been placed between two glass disks. The liquid, which is normally stable, responds to magnetic attraction. When Zahn and Lorenz apply two magnetic fields, the drop changes shape to resemble cartoonlike doodles.

At the meeting, Zahn observed attendees’ reactions to the video. “You could hear people under their breath go, Wow,’” he says.

Ferrofluids are commonly used as sealants on computer disk drives to keep out dust. However, Zahn ‘67, SM ‘68, EE ‘69, ScD ‘70, is currently working with several students to apply this research to microfluidic and microelectromechanical devices, and to understand why the ferrofluid forms such intricate patterns under these conditions.

Neuroscience’s Superstar

Over the past seven years, the annual conference of MIT’s and Harvard University’s Hippocratic societies has hosted an impressive array of internationally renowned luminaries and laureates, who have spoken on diverse medical topics from alternative medicine to genetic technologies. But the groups’ March conference on neuroscience drew a speaker with star power-actor Christopher Reeve.

As part of a panel considering the ethics and policies of neuroscience, Reeve spoke to an auditorium packed with Harvard and MIT students. He devoted his talk to the politics behind embryonic-stem-cell research. Since he became paralyzed in an equestrian accident in 1995, Reeve has had a personal interest in the promise of stem cell therapy.

Reeve believes that President Bush’s 2001 decision to limit the number of embryonic-stem-cell lines-sets of similar cells derived from a common parent cell-was driven by politics, not by the advice of scientists. Asserting that this decision has greatly delayed the potential benefits of the research, Reeve encouraged students to speak with state representatives about the issue. “You guys are in a position to be heard,” he told the gathering.

The Hippocratic societies’ annual conference aims to bring together professionals and students who are interested in the health-care industry to discuss issues of scientific, political, legal, and ethical concern. Speakers at this year’s conference addressed many aspects of neuroscience, such as the ethics of research and clinical trials and the role of journals in the communication of scientific findings.

Technology TV

On the bare-bones set of High-Tech Fever, a Cambridge Community Television open-access program, Joost Bonsen ‘90 is preparing to interview a local business founder. Bonsen, a graduate student at the Sloan School, hosts the show, which seeks to inspire entrepreneurial activity among viewers. Through live interviews with company founders, he explores such details of entrepreneurship as obtaining funding, building research teams, and forming business plans.

“Everybody interviewed on the show shares the creator ethos’ in his or her own way,” says Bonsen. This evening’s guest is Yonald Chery ‘88, SM ‘88, CEO of MIT spinoff mok3, a graphics software company that converts 2-D images into 3-D environments. Chery describes the obstacles and rewards of creating a business from scratch.

Bonsen began hosting High-Tech Fever in 1999, after appearing as a guest multiple times. “Apparently I was a good enough guest that [former host James Currier] invited me to take over the show when he got busy starting his own company,” says Bonsen, lead organizer of the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition and leader of the MIT Founders Project published as “MIT: The Impact of Innovation.” Bonsen has expanded the program’s coverage beyond its original focus on software companies to include all of the key players in the technology venture zone, from lab researchers to venture capitalists.

Switchable Surfaces

MIT researchers have developed a surface whose properties can be changed-from water repelling to water loving, for example-with the flip of a switch. This novel trick could be used to create faster, more efficient microscopic systems for drug delivery and manufacturing.

Led by Robert Langer, ScD ‘74, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, the research team has created a “forest” of special molecules on the surface of a gold electrode. The tips of the molecules are hydrophilic, or water loving, while their bases are hydrophobic, or water repelling. When an electric current is sent through the electrode, the attractive force causes the molecules to bend, exposing their hydrophobic bases. This changes the surface from its normal state, in which it attracts water, to a water-repellent state.

Although the concept seems simple, the working system took four years to construct.

A big challenge was finding the right tools for the job, according to medical engineering and medical physics doctoral candidate Thanh-Nga Tran of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Tran says it was difficult, for example, to locate instruments that could detect the nanoscopic molecules on the electrode’s surface.

The team’s next step will be tailoring the system to amplify the effect. Then, using different molecules, the group will begin to build surfaces with other changeable properties, such as adhesiveness and friction.

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