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Instant Shelter

Architecture professor Larry Sass, SM 94, PhD 00, is creating computer software that could allow architects to quickly design inexpensive emergency shelters using standard-size sheets of plywood. The shelters, which could be easily weatherproofed, would be useful for disaster relief in cold climates where tents provide insufficient protection from the elements, says Sass.

The software allows architects to choose from a series of three-dimensional shapes. An architect pieces together a building from the shapes, and the program calculates the most efficient way to assemble it out of plywood. This summer, Sass and MIT undergraduate Victoria Lee 06 tested the software, which successfully calculated the best way to build a prototype cube three meters on a side. An added bonus is that the buildings require few materials. No nails, glue, or cement are necessary; instead, the plywood parts will have interlocking pieces that snap together. If you can limit the number of materials, you can limit the cost, says Sass. The resulting structures could last for years. The software, which Sass plans on completing over the next few years, would go so far as to calculate the cost of each shelter.

MIT for the Wee

This August, the new Technology Childrens Center opened in the Stata Center to provide child care to the families of MIT faculty, staff, and students. The facility was created in response to a 1998 report that identified the need for more day-care services on campus.

Immobilizing Cancer

Scientists have long wondered how cancers spread from their primary sites to take over distant organs in the body. Now a team of scientists from MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have found a key player in this process. Twist is a protein that until now was known only for its role in the developing embryo. But, it seems, Twist has a shady second career: promoting the spread of cancer.

The main thrust of Twists actions is to cause a profound makeover in the appearance and behavior of cells, says MIT biology professor Robert Weinberg, who led the team. Twist enables a drastic metamorphosis. Ordinarily, cells in organs form tightly bound sheets, but Twist enables them to separate and survive while prowling through the body. Jing Yang, a postdoctoral researcher who worked with Weinberg, points out that Twist is potentially useful as a marker for invasive cancers. That could lead to different approaches to treatment: when Twist is present and active, a vigorous counterattack is necessary to limit a cancers spread throughout the body.

Besides developing simple ways to test for Twist, Yang hopes to identify what induces Twista protein that should be turned off in adultsto revive in cancer cells.

File Finder

Computers are supposed to make organization simple, but sometimes filing and finding documents in a labyrinth of digital folders seems only marginally more sophisticated than rifling through the filing cabinets of yesteryear.

Computer science professor David Karger hopes new software will transform the way people organize and search for information on their computers. The Haystack project, which Karger started in 1995 with former MIT professor Lynn Stein, offers more-intuitive ways of organizing files, far beyond the traditional categories of file name, type, or date.

In digital environments, information can be organized in countless ways. With Haystack, associations, or groupings, can be created among files of any type. E-mails, for example, can be linked to photographs, websites, MP3s, or text documents. This way, a user can find family photographs by searching through e-mails from family members.

The Haystack project began when Internet search engines were just gaining popularity. What really bugged me was that we suddenly had amazing tools for searching the Internet but still couldnt organize our own stuff, says Karger. He says development of sophisticated organization and searching software got a late start because when personal computers first became popular in the 1980s, I dont think people envisioned having such a large personal repository of information that would need to be searched.

A downloadable prototype version of the software is available on the Haystack project website (haystack.lcs.mit.edu). As the organization principles in Kargers software catch on, we may find that we suddenly have amazing tools for searching our own hard drives.

Retiring from the Road

When the time comes to decide whether to voluntarily give up their drivers licenses, older Americans want the help of family members. This and other findings, along with information on making the transition to life without a drivers license, were published last summer in the guide We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers. The guide comes from researchers at the MIT AgeLab and the Hartford Financial Services Group insurance company, who spent two years studying the attitudes and driving habits of adults over 50.

Making the decision to stop driving can be devastating, says Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab and one of the directors of the project. Adults may go through a grieving process and can even fall into depression. Driving isnt about getting from point A to point B, he says. Its independence and freedom of the individual. Its a quality-of-life issue.

However, the researchers found that older adults are willing to talk about their driving skills if there have been changes in their health, if they have begun to voluntarily curtail their driving, or if they have had accidents or minor mishaps. Most importantly, they want to talk with people they trust, who have seen changes in their driving patterns, and who have their best interests at heart.

The guide offers a worksheet on warning signs for older drivers and an assessment of alternative transportation methods. Free copies are available through the AgeLab website at web.mit.edu/agelab.

Broad Decodes Pathogens

The Broad Institutea genomics research collaboration among MIT, Harvard University, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Researchhas established a new Microbial Sequencing Center to sequence the genomes of more than a hundred organisms that cause disease or that might be used as agents of bioterrorism. The center, which is funded through a $75 million contract with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, plans to release the sequencing data on a publicly accessible website. Researchers will be able to download the information to answer deceivingly simple questions such as, How do these pathogens cause disease? What drugs might be used against them? Why are some resistant to a variety of drugs? Comparing the sequence of one bugs genome to anothers will give researchers small clues to the answers. For instance, comparing a dangerous bacterium to a benign relative could let researchers pin down sequences that are unique to the pathogen. This may help identify the genes that lead to virulence.

Chad Nusbaum, codirector of genome sequencing and analysis at the center, says that its sequencing machines push through millions of DNA sequences a month. I dont believe anyone is sequencing at our scale, he says. For now, the center is focused on eight clinical variants of tuberculosis and on a bacterium that causes tularemia, a disease that can lead to life-threatening pneumonia. Although its name might not be familiar, researchers are concerned that this organism could be used as an agent of bioterrorism. Knowing its sequence may help researchers avert medical catastrophes.

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