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Rewriting Life

Plastic under Pressure

News from around campus

Estrogen and Heart Disease

Could the same hormone that helps reduce the risk of heart disease in some cases raise it in others? MIT researchers are shedding light on this apparent contradiction. They are helping explain why estrogen seems to protect certain people from cardiovascular disease while being strongly associated with heart attack in others.

Research scientist Amanda Shearman and her team at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research examined a genetic variation in certain cells that interact with estrogen. Their results show that this variation indicates a high risk of heart attack. Shearman’s team identified the variation by surveying the blood samples and medical histories of 1,739 people. The subjects were second-generation participants in the Framingham Heart Study-a landmark initiative that tracked the medical health of 5,209 Framingham, MA, residents and their descendants for 50 years.


Subjects two and three have a genetic variation that makes them more likely to have heart attacks. (Courtesy of Amanda Shearman)

The researchers found that 12 percent of the men with the genetic variation had suffered heart attacks over a 27-year period. In contrast, only 5 percent of men without the variation suffered heart attacks. Further studies on women need to be conducted, Shearman says, “because there were too few cardiovascular events among them for such a result to have had any meaning.”

The scientists hope that discovering the variation will allow doctors to genetically identify people who might be at risk for cardiovascular disease. But diagnosing the variant during a doctor’s visit is a ways off. “The results in our…paper are statistically significant and quite exciting but do not yet provide a basis for a diagnostic test,” says Shearman.

Smart Cars

A new Media Lab class is creating a concept car that redefines passengers’ relationship to the city. Since last semester, the year-long class has churned out dozens of designs, which will eventually be incorporated into a General Motorsbuilt prototype.

The goal is to design an automobile that has the savvy of a cab driver or concierge, according to William J. Mitchell, project leader and academic head of Media Arts and Sciences. For example, Global Positioning Systemenabled devices in the car might warn drivers about upcoming traffic jams or potholes. The students are even considering how seats could be better configured: in one design, a car four seats wide has a moveable steering wheel, so all the passengers can take turns driving.

The class includes 15 undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral associates in disciplines ranging from computer science to business management. To compensate for their relative inexperience in design, the students research automobile design topics and present their findings in class. “Design is changing,” Mitchell says. “It’s not a matter of having a lot of accumulated expertise; it’s a matter of being able
to learn very quickly in new situations.”

Mitchell hopes to send the class’s ideas to the Santa Monica, CA, architecture firm Frank O. Gehry and Associates within the next three months. The firm will work with GM to create a full-scale prototype, which could be finished in three years.

Vassar Street Revamp

The detour signs are gone. Now pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles can navigate much of Vassar Street with remarkable ease. Credit for transforming it from an industrial throughway to a welcoming city street goes to the Vassar Streetscape project, a partnership between MIT and the City of Cambridge. The project’s first phase, which covered Vassar from Main Street to Massachusetts Avenue, was largely completed last fall and will be finished in May.

“We wanted to give you the impression that you’re on the MIT campus, but still within the city,” says Talitha Fabricius, senior project manager and campus landscape architect. Instead of the brick and concrete usually used on Cambridge city streets, Vassar got nontraditional materials. The sidewalk was constructed from blocks called pavers, which are made from a blend of concrete and stone that is durable and decorative. Then the street was adorned with columnar gingko trees and contemporary street lamps. These changes echo the design of other parts of campus; for example, the streetlights match the style of the light fixtures in the new Stata Center.

Pedestrians and cyclists will find a new off-road bicycle track. Its meanderings around crosswalks and driveways are dotted with solar-powered lights that glow at night. The project also installed bollards-semicircular posts that prevent cars from encroaching on the sidewalk. For a total of $5 million, this transportation oasis now extends for about half a kilometer.

The project’s second phase will address the stretch of Vassar from Massachusetts Avenue to Audrey Street, which will mirror the completed section. Work is set to begin in 2005.

Plastic under Pressure

Professor Anne Mayes ‘86 and her colleagues in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering have developed a new process for molding plastic at room temperature that could allow plastics to be recycled many times and reduce the cost of plastic production.

The process involves squeezing certain combinations of polymers together, causing them to interact in such a way that they assume a moldable, liquidlike state-a goal manufacturers typically achieve by melting materials at about 200 C. The new process yields materials called baroplastics, which can be made from the same materials as traditional plastics. Mayes and her colleagues have known since 1998 that applying pressure could produce baroplastics, but they only recently discovered practical materials to squeeze.

When it comes to recycling, the new system offers a distinct advantage. “Polymeric materials don’t handle the high temperatures of the [traditional] recycling process very well, so we typically end up with much lower-grade material than when we start,” Mayes says. This means that traditional plastic can be recycled two times at most, while baroplastics remain strong and usable after many more recyclings. The system could also save manufacturers money by allowing them to make plastics of different consistencies-a milk jug and its cap, for example-out of the same basic elements.

Despite these advantages, Mayes says her system is far from commercial use because change is slow in the plastics industry, which relies on high-volume production at low profit margins.

Honoring South Asian Innovators

MIT’s Indian Business Club, an initiative of the indian student association, Sangam, recently presented the first annual Global Indus Technovators Awards to honor South Asian scientists and innovators. A panel of judges that included a CEO and a Nobel Prize winner selected the 20 winners-among them seven MIT faculty and alumni-from a pool of more than 150 nominees.

The awards are intended to encourage scientific progress, honor South Asian innovators who are advancing their respective fields, and identify role models for the South Asian community. Awards are given in four areas: biotechnology, health care, and medicine; information technology; nanotechnology, materials, and devices; and energy and grass-roots development.

After being recognized at a ceremony last fall, many of the award winners expressed hope that their research would be useful to South Asia. For example, Pawan Sinha, SM ‘92, PhD ‘95, an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is seeking to treat blindness in his native India, where the condition is widespread among children. He says the awards could have a positive impact in his home country. “By holding up and celebrating a few examples, it sends some very important messages to the South Asian youth,” he says. “Success is feasible, there is a community that is ready to help you achieve success, and the inspiration you need to start the journey can often come from understanding the needs of the lands of your origin.”

Renaissance Shipping News

MIT’s Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology has received two grants totaling $425,000 to create a book and educational Web site about a rare manuscript. The document was written by Michael of Rhodes, a 15th-century Venetian mariner, and an anonymous owner has given the Dibner Institute exclusive access to it for historical study.

The manuscript is a 440-page record of Michael’s travels and shipping knowledge, and it is notable for its treatise on building Venetian galleys. This treatise is the earliest known detailed European document on naval architecture. The manuscript also includes astrological tables, instructions on how to enter Venice, and sections on how to solve commerce-related algebra problems. According to Dibner Institute research associate and project coordinator David McGee, this collection of diverse information related to seafaring offers an exceptional early example of “the interrelationship of science and technology in the life of an ordinary man.”

The three-year grants, given by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will support an international team of about 10 experts on Venetian history, shipbuilding, 15th-century Italian language, and art history. Over the next year, the team will transcribe, translate, and write explanatory essays on the text. This material will then be incorporated into a three-volume publication that could go to press by 2006. Next year, the team will start working with public-television affiliate WGBH Interactive in Boston to create a Web site based on the manuscript for students and the general public.

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