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Alumni Letters

Letters from our readers
April 21, 2009

Holly Yanco’s Inspiring Lab

Your wonderful article (“Machines for Living,” March/April 2009) brings the robots in Holly Yanco’s lab to life. As my colleague in computer science at UMass Lowell (and a fellow MIT alum), she’s has had a real impact on my career. Holly encouraged me to apply to the department, welcomed me into her activities when I got here, and helped me write my first grant. Over the following semesters, I watched in awe as Holly wrote one grant after the next.

Holly’s natural leadership inspires faculty and students alike. It’s great to see her research recognized for the MIT community to appreciate.

Fred Martin ‘86, SM ‘88, PhD ‘94
Associate professor, UMass Lowell

Capturing CO2 on the Cheap

The story about partial capture of carbon dioxide (“Partway to Cleaner Coal,” March/April 2009) got me thinking about how to make the most effective use of the economy’s resources to deal with this problem.

If one implements a cap-and-trade system to control carbon dioxide emissions, then achieving the lowest unit cost of capture would seem to be the most important factor in minimizing costs. This means building carbon dioxide removal systems at sites where costs are lowest, and designing them with a degree of capture that leads to lowest unit costs. All other carbon dioxide emitters would purchase credits from facilities with excess credits.

My experience as a licensor of carbon dioxide removal processes for Union Carbide suggests that at least 90 percent removal yields the lowest unit costs. The cost of removal is the sum of the operating cost and the capital cost, both of which increase at a lower rate than the increase in degree of removal. Thus the unit cost for capture at 90 percent is certainly less than at 50 percent and a great deal less than at 10 percent. Only as one approaches 100 percent removal does the unit cost increase appreciably.

The cost of conveying the captured carbon dioxide to its eternal storage destination must be factored into the overall cost calculation as well. A single large conveyance system will certainly have a significantly lower unit cost for carbon dioxide disposal than will multiple smaller units.

It would seem on all counts that removing the bulk of the carbon dioxide at a ­single location is preferable to partial removal in multiple locations under a cap-and-trade scenario.

Richard Paul ‘52
Redding, CT

Everyone’s a Curator

The MIT Museum’s 150 Exhibition aims to draw the entire MIT community into commemorating the Institute’s extraordinary history and culture (“What Says ‘MIT’ to You?” March/April 2009). In the first few weeks we have seen artifact nominations for everything from Oliver Smoot and Ellen Swallow Richards to MIT OpenCourseWare.

We really mean it when we say that “everyone’s a curator”; we encourage all students, faculty, alumni, and staff to share their stuff and stories with us at through the end of June.

Deborah Douglas
Curator of science and technology
MIT Museum

Course XX Lives!

Reading “Two Happy Clams” (March/April 2009) got me reminiscing about the history of Course XX, which didn’t exist before 1946 and from 1989 to 2008. But Course XX had roots in Course VII, which dates back to the first years of MIT.

Course VII started out as natural history in 1871, morphed into biology in 1889, then became biology and public health in 1911. The early years always involved food science. MIT’s first alumna, Ellen Swallow Richards (Class of 1873), was an instructor from 1884 to 1911 in the Laboratory of Sanitary Chemistry. Her books included Air, Water and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint, and she was a pioneer in the home economics movement.

Course XX, food technology, was spun off from biology and biological engineering in 1945-‘46. Nevin Scrimshaw joined MIT in 1961 to head the renamed Department of Nutrition and Food Science. The department became Applied Biological Sciences in 1985 and then disbanded in 1988. Many of the faculty stayed on with other departments; some are now in the new XX.

My own transit in XX spanned 1975 to 1981, culminating in a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry and metabolism. In each phase of my career (at the National Dairy Council, Nestlé Nutrition, Monsanto, and Welch’s and now in consulting), I’ve observed that the world of nutrition science is small–and well populated by MIT people! At Nestlé I often ran into MIT grads from competing medical-nutrition companies at conferences, where we reminisced about our time in Buildings 16, 56, and E19. I still bump into MIT grads everywhere. They are at universities, in government, on science advisory boards for industry, and serving as editors for peer-reviewed journals. And because I was at MIT under Dr. Scrimshaw, I can say that I shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Goldblith, who shook the hand of Prescott, who shook the hand of Swallow, who was there at the beginning, 125 years ago.

Anyone interested in the history of Course XX should read Of Microbes and Molecules: Food Technology, Nutrition and Applied Biology at MIT 1873-1988 by Samuel A. Goldblith ‘40, SM ‘47, PhD ‘49.

David A. Mark ‘73, SM ‘77, PhD ‘81
Maynard, MA

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