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Microscopic Monitors

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Staying Calm in Rough Waters

Although the Manhattan island marathon swim was canceled last June when heavy rains stressed New York’s sewage treatment systems, MIT junior Nicholas Sidelnik jumped into the Hudson River anyway. Swimming 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) in cold, choppy, and perhaps even sewage-laced water was just one of many elements of a training regime that included, not only another marathon swim, but about 30,000 meters of swimming per week, to get him to his ultimate goal: swimming the English Channel.

Sidelnik, who has been swimming competitively since childhood, is a distance swimmer on the MIT swim team. Between studying aerospace engineering and economics, he trained last spring in the more hospitable environs of the Zesiger Pool, Walden Pond, and occasionally the ocean with his training partner Chris Lucas ‘03. On July 26 Sidelnik plunged into 16 C (60 F) water off Dover, England. He chose his course to Calais, France, with the aid of a book called Dover Solo, which pegged the distance at 38.12 kilometers (23.69 miles). Sidelnik estimates, however, that due to rough water, wind, and currents, he swam a 64-kilometer (40-mile) course. “You have to time your stroke and your breathing-make it match the rate of the waves,” he said. “Sometimes it felt like I was swimming in place.”

The English Channel swim is considered the Mount Everest of open-water swimming. Now Sidelnik is setting his sights on climbing the real thing.

Microscopic Monitors

Daniel Nocera and his colleagues in MIT’s Earth System Initiative-a research project that relates science and technology to the earth’s biosystems-have created microscopic sensors that can be tailored to glow or stop glowing in response to pollutants or even biochemical-warfare substances such as anthrax.

Nocera, who is the W. M. Keck Professor of Energy and professor of chemistry, and his team created “supramolecules,” large molecules whose subunits can perform different tasks, and attached them to microscopic lasers. When a supramolecule detects a particular pollutant, it engulfs it and absorbs its energy, which causes the laser to turn on or off. Other molecular sensors, without lasers, don’t give off enough light to be easily detected, says Nocera. The light given off by the new sensors is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.

Such small sensors can be put on “people or animals, or cars-whatever you want,” says Nocera. For example, Nocera has worked with the air force to create similar sensors to detect jet fuel pollutants in ground water. He expects that “within a few years, we could have some really neat new sensors on the microscale.”

Community Classroom

Graduate students in Professor Terry Szold’s community-growth and land-use-planning course got a firsthand taste of community planning last fall when they used a local town as their classroom. Their assignment: find ways to breathe life into Needham’s town center.

The class of 24 made regular visits to Needham in teams of six and seven. Teams took photos and interviewed residents about their hopes for Needham’s downtown. Many residents wanted more civic and community gathering spaces and improved nightlife and cultural activities. On October 30, the teams presented their plans to about 90 Needham residents at a town meeting. The teams suggested building more housing-including affordable housing-in the town center (which would increase the demand for entertainment and restaurants), restructuring parking areas, improving public transportation, and providing more street amenities, such as benches. They also suggested creating more walkways, improving signage, and emphasizing the town’s green space.

“I got the feeling that most people who attended the presentation are committed to change and willing to consider any recommendations we might propose,” says master’s candidate Ulla Hester. Lee Newman, planning director for Needham, says, “The piece they brought to the table that we hadn’t focused on was bringing housing downtown.”

Over the last nine years, students in Szold’s course have worked in Andover, Newton, Chestnut Hill Village, and other Massachusetts communities. “The primary objective is to engage students in a client-based planning process,” Szold says. “If you’re a good planner, you try to get a sense of place.”

Lean Times

On September 12, 2003, President Charles M. Vest HM announced the largest cut to MIT’s operating budget in the school’s history. Beginning in fiscal year 2005, a $70 million gap between forecast revenues and expenditures will be closed. In the 2004 fiscal year, which began July 1, 2003, that gap was about half as big-or $34 million. The decision is a response to three consecutive years of declining investment return on the Institute’s endowment. Income from the endowment provides about one-third of MIT’s annual operating budget, but in the last two years, the endowment has shrunk from $6.5 billion to $5.1 billion.

President Vest assured the community that cuts would not compromise the educational excellence of the Institute. In a letter to faculty and staff last fall, he wrote, “MIT has never been stronger in terms of the quality of our students, faculty, and staff, our academic programs, cutting-edge research, the evolution of our campus, and our underlying financial strength.” However, he wrote, “if we do not do this, we will cut too deeply into the financial base on which future generations of faculty, students, and staff will depend.”

Administrators have verified that up to 250 positions will be eliminated, many through attrition, and open positions must be justified before they can be filled. Salaries of over $55,000 will be frozen, and the rest will see minimal increases. Reduced administrative budgets mean that fewer new initiatives can be funded, and smaller renovation budgets will delay some work on existing campus buildings. MIT has also cut the number of fellowships available for graduate students and reduced graduate tuition subsidies. The realignment of budgets and revenues will allow new growth beginning in 2006.

Army Funds New Institute

MIT, Caltech, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have received a $50 million grant from the U.S. Army to form the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies. Based at UCSB, the institute will bring together researchers from the three institutions to create biologically derived sensors, electronics, and information-processing devices that the army will eventually use in advanced uniform and display technologies. Researchers at the biotech institute will collaborate with colleagues at the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, another $50 million U.S. Army project. Six industrial partners, including IBM, will participate by developing the technologies created in the university laboratories.

Angela Belcher, associate professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering, leads the MIT team. One project has engineers spinning silklike fibers-much the way spiders spin silk-out of nonharmful viruses. The viruses can be genetically engineered to give the fibers magnetic, semiconducting, or even optical properties. Eventually, Belcher says, the fibers could allow information-processing or optical devices to be built into uniforms. Six industrial partners, including IBM, will develop the technologies created in the university laboratories for the army.

Seeing the Light

When a child in the United States is born with congenital cataracts-cloudiness in the eye’s lens that can cause blindness-a quick, simple procedure can restore his or her sight. But in India, this inexpensive operation is beyond the means of most children’s families. While visiting relatives in India in 2002, Pawan Sinha, PhD ‘95, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, decided to help treat these children. With outside funding, he started Project Prakash, a humanitarian and scientific project to support both cataract removal surgery and follow-up research, which will examine how children learn to recognize what they see, and how their brains adapt to visual stimuli.

The first surgeries supported by Project Prakash will be performed this winter by doctors at several eye hospitals in India on about 10 blind children between the ages of five and 20. In the meantime, Sinha and his colleagues will continue their work with children who have already had surgery. Because these children are able to talk about their experiences as they adapt to a visual world, the researchers are beginning to understand the early and intermediate stages of the visual recognition process.

“We are born with very little knowledge about the world,” says Sinha. “Somehow, through visual experience, we come to be able to interpret complex visual information.”

Sinha is seeking additional funding to expand the project’s scope and to establish a permanent research center in India.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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