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Rewriting Life

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News from around campus

Sands and Time

In March, a team of monks created a Chenrezig mandala in Simmons Hall. The construction of the sand sculpture represents the creation of the universe. It took 50 hours to build, after which the sand was collected and dropped in the Charles River. The project was organized by Tenzin L. S. Priyadarshi, MIT’s Buddhist chaplain.

Dorms Go Digital

Lost or stolen packages, missing DVD rentals, and misplaced ping-pong paddles are common problems in MIT dormitories. A Web-based software system for front-desk workers funded with $30,000 from the MIT-Microsoft iCampus partnership could help end these dorm-life quandaries.

Principal investigator Luxiou Chen ‘04 developed the system, FrontDesk, which does away with the dozens of binders dormitory workers use to keep track of equipment, video rentals, and residents’ delivered packages.

The new software allows workers to easily record package deliveries, maintain lists of non-MIT visitors, and track movies and equipment that have been labeled with bar code stickers. To register the arrival of a package, for example, a worker searches for the recipient’s name and clicks on an “add package” button. Then the system automatically notifies the recipient by e-mail that the package is waiting. The software also links to a database that records when packages arrive and when students retrieve them.

Speaking as a former front-desk worker, Chen says, “This is something that we’ve really been wanting for a long time; it’s just that no one has ever gotten $30,000 to develop it.” The beta system will be released this fall in Baker House, Burton-Conner, and McCormick Hall, but Chen hopes that it will eventually be adopted by other MIT dorms.

A Matter of Taste

Informal truffle-making parties at Senior House turned official last fall with the formation of one of MIT’s latest student groups, the Lab for Chocolate Science. Members of the group experiment with making chocolate confections and, like many other labs, surround their experiments with movies, lectures, and competitions.

Founding president Ariel Segall ‘04 has had a passion for chocolate since childhood. After eating an unusual wasabi and ginger truffle at a friend’s house, she decided to duplicate the concoction herself. She bought 20 kilograms of chocolate and five liters of cream and invited a group of friends to join her in making their own candy. Subsequent gatherings attracted so many students that a chocolate appreciation club seemed the logical next step.

It also gave Segall a way to continue exploring her infatuation with chocolate. “When you have 50 pounds of chocolate, you can experiment on things you wouldn’t do on your own.”

Among its early offerings, the club sponsored a lecture about the science of chocolate. In addition to truffle-making parties, the club also held sessions on chocolate sculpting, a chocolate brunch buffet, and a chocolate tasting that included 65 different dark-chocolate candy bars. The outcome of the contest proved difficult to predict. “Good chocolate is a matter of taste,” says Segall.

Following an article about the club in the New York Times, food television networks expressed interest in having members of the group on shows. In the meantime, current president Janet Leung ‘06 is looking for a professor who can help test the mechanical strength of chocolate.

A Cleaner Way to Make Steel

Every year, global steel manufacturing produces more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Donald Sadoway, a professor of materials science and engineering, is hoping to make that ancient history, with a steel-manufacturing process that does not emit carbon dioxide.

Steel, which is iron that contains a minute amount of carbon for strength, is currently produced in two steps. First, iron ore and distilled coal are heated in a furnace, a process that produces carbon dioxide and an impure form of liquid iron. Then oxygen gas is passed through the molten iron in a second furnace to remove excess carbon and other impurities, creating steel and additional carbon dioxide. In Sadoway’s process, material derived from iron ore is placed in a special container along with a solvent. Two electrodes are immersed in the solvent bath, and an electrical current is passed through the iron. Oxygen gas, which can be harnessed and marketed, forms at one electrode, and pure liquid iron is produced at the other. Later, a small amount of carbon is added to the iron.

Sadoway’s prototype container is about the size of a coffee cup, but with a 2003 Innovation Grant from the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, he is scaling it up to the size of a 19-liter bucket. The final prototype will need to accommodate tons of iron ore, but industry representatives are already interested. Faced with the possibility of steep environmental taxes, a leading European steel company put Sadoway’s method on its short list of alternative processes. If the method becomes commercially viable for steel, Sadoway says, it could be useful in producing other metals, such as titanium. “I’m taking on the whole periodic table,” he says.

The Future of Archiving

DSpace, an open-source digital repository system created by MIT and Hewlett-Packard, has been adopted by dozens of organizations and educational institutions since its software became available for download in late 2002. In March, MIT brought together representatives from 50 early adopters to talk about their experiences with the archiving program, which can be used to store academic material in many forms-as documents, audio and video files, or Web pages, for instance.

Presenters included representatives from Cornell University, which is using DSpace to make new scholarly books available online for free, and from the University of Edinburgh, which is using DSpace to digitally preserve theses and dissertations. According to Mackenzie Smith, MIT Libraries associate director for technology and organizer of the meeting, one unforeseen advantage of having DSpace distributed so widely is the emergence of customized versions of the program. The University of Edinburgh modified DSpace so that professors can edit their students’ theses online. Smith says this has led to upgrades including changes in the program’s user interface and methods for preserving the accessibility of different file formats over time.

Despite the project’s success, Smith says a challenge will be finding ways to make users more comfortable with the technology. “We need space to keep experimenting with things, finding ways to make this easier for people,” she says.

Deconstructing Diabetes

More than 15 million people in the United States have type 2 diabetes, but its causes are varied and not well understood. Researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, MIT, and the University of Chicago have used new genomic-analysis methods to unravel some of the disease’s mysteries.

Previously, scientists had found signs that certain biological molecules were linked to type 2 diabetes. The suspect molecules were transcription factors, a type of molecule that binds to specific parts of the genome to switch genes on at the right time to create the myriad tissues that make up all the body’s organs. Until recently, figuring out which genes a transcription factor regulates was a prohibitively time-consuming process. However, the researchers have developed a technique for performing such analyses hundreds to thousands of times faster.

The technique allowed the researchers to determine whether various transcription factors found in the liver and the pancreas interact with any of 13,000 human genes. They found that a single transcription factor, HNF4, was involved in the expression of about half of the genes containing the instructions to create pancreas and liver cells, whereas other factors interacted with only a small percentage of those genes. Because HNF4 proved to be so active in the formation of liver and pancreatic cells, the researchers can now explain how a defective version of it could contribute to diabetes.

“This one transcription factor seems to be the key,” says Duncan Odom, a Whitehead postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the recent paper in the journal Science that described the researchers’ findings. Their results could one day be used to identify people at risk for developing diabetes as adults. In the meantime, Odom is working to uncover the roles of several other transcription factors in the liver and pancreas.

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