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Attracting Talent from Abroad
Despite trends, MIT draws the best international graduate students
By Sally Atwood

Ever since the USA Patriot Act became law in fall 2001, higher-education officials have been concerned that the law’s tighter security measures could serve to discourage international graduate students from enrolling in U.S. universities. Last fall, a survey conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools confirmed these fears: the number of first-year international graduate students enrolling in U.S. schools has fallen every year since 2001. Nationwide, the survey reports a 6 percent decline in enrollment in 2004 alone. That follows a 10 percent drop in 2003 and an 8 percent drop in 2002. Many fear this could signal the end of American dominance in higher education, and that the presence of fewer international students could degrade the quality of degrees from U.S. universities.

Although the Institute fared better than the national average last year, showing a modest .57 percent increase in first-year international students, the pool of applicants is down 15 percent since 2002. If that drop continues for several more years, there will be cause for concern, says Alice Gast, vice president for research. “At the top-tier institutions, we really value the mix [of students],” she says. “You get individuals with different ways of looking at problems, different ways of thinking about problems.” The numbers this year aren’t particularly alarming; however, Gast cautions, “my concern is if we’re losing the top students. We want to be able to attract the quality students that we have come to expect and enjoy.”

Nationwide, the drop in international graduate student enrollment has hit hardest in a few specific disciplines. Business programs are down by 12 percent, life sciences and agriculture by 10 percent, and engineering by 8 percent. MIT has also seen changes in these areas, though to a lesser degree than other schools. Institute statistics show that international graduate enrollment is down by 1 percent in business and 1.3 percent in engineering, yet up by 4.1 percent in life sciences. Julie Strong, associate director of MBA admissions at the Sloan School of Management, says most of the drop in that school’s overall enrollment numbers (international and domestic) is the result of the slow economy and fewer domestic applicants, rather than a drop in international students. In fact, she says the percentage of first-year international students is on the rise at Sloan, up to 36 percent in 2004. There is good news on other fronts as well. Several disciplines at MIT saw an increase in international graduate students in 2004. The humanities, social sciences, and architecture and urban design saw increases that range from 2.6 to 26 percent.

The downturn in international enrollments is beginning to show up at the undergraduate level as well. In 2004, the Institute saw a 2.7 percent decrease in international freshmen. Only 70 out of 101 admitted to MIT enrolled; two years earlier, 81 enrolled out of 103 accepted. Since international undergraduate students are capped at 8 percent of an incoming class, any drop in the numbers is of concern. “Each student is very valuable,” says Bette Johnson, associate director of admissions. “We don’t want to lose many of them.”

Overall the decline in raw numbers may be small at MIT, but it reflects a shift most educators attribute to new U.S. policies and to the globalization of education. “The perception is that the U.S. is not a welcoming place,” says Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director and associate dean for international students. In the first two years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, that view was warranted. Visa delays that often caused students to miss entire academic years drew media attention around the world. Now most visas can be secured in four to six weeks. However, high-level security reviews of many international students continue to lengthen the process. Those reviews can be triggered by an individual’s nationality, field of study, former employment, and general background information.

Reëntry visa delays have also contributed to the negative perception. If students whose visas have expired want to attend an international conference, they must often return to their homeland to apply for another visa to reënter the United States after the conference. “Those delays are most damaging,” says Gast. “I think they send a huge message to other students who think they’ll be stuck in the U.S.”

The negative perception has given other English-speaking countries the toehold they’ve been seeking with international students. Guichard-Ashbrook says Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have begun to aggressively recruit international students, and with some success. “Look at their statistics and their numbers have skyrocketed,” she says. Strong says Australia has become especially competitive for business students. China and Korea are rapidly improving their educational systems to encourage top students to stay at home, and European countries are remaking their graduate programs—modeled on U.S. PhD programs—to make them more attractive to international students.

Still, MIT remains in the enviable position of attracting the best and enrolling most of those it admits, regardless of country of origin. Concern about international graduate student issues has claimed the attention of top administrators. Departments now provide award letters quickly and send documents overnight so students can start the visa process early. And faculty concerned about international travel for their students work with Guichard-Ashbrook to minimize problems. Although only the future will reveal whether educators’ concerns are merited, Gast believes that MIT’s reputation, its high-quality programs, and its welcoming environment will continue to draw the best students from abroad. Arthur Smith, chair of the committee on graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science, agrees. “We’ll never see a drop in quality until the numbers are very small,” he says, and the chances of that happening at MIT are slim indeed.

Patchwork Computing
Researchers create intelligent—and machine washable!—fabrics
By Catherine Nichols

Researchers at the Media Lab have created modular, computerized patches of fabric that can be pieced together to form items of clothing or accessories. These pieces of fabric can also provide different information and services depending on their configuration.

A purse assembled from the patches can tell when it’s dark outside and turn on an interior light, or it can inform its owner if her wallet is missing. The purse can also be torn apart and quickly reassembled into a scarf. In addition to keeping its wearer’s neck warm, the scarf can play music it has downloaded from the Internet via Bluetooth chips or report the amount of smog in the air. And as its creators, V. Michael Bove Jr. ’83, SM ’85, PhD ’89, a principal research scientist in the Media Lab, and graduate student Gauri Nanda, are quick to point out, the patches are even machine washable. Each contains a variety of sensors and processors and communicates with its neighbors through metallic, Velcro-like edging.

Bove and Nanda expect that others will come up with more imaginative and useful shapes for their invention, which they hope will be ready for commercialization in as little as a year. In the meantime, they are working on enabling the patches to wirelessly download new functions from the Internet.

Working Class
The Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program lends engineering students business savvy
By Lisa Scanlon

When Mark Herschberg ’95, SM ’97, started his first job outside MIT, he was an excellent coder, he admits, but “not very business savvy.” Herschberg explains: “MIT students, we’re used to talking to other engineers. Problem is, when you put an engineer in front of a sales guy, [the engineer] starts spouting numbers, and five minutes later the sales guy’s eyes glaze over.” Herschberg was lucky to land at a company that helped him develop professional skills, but he suspected that many of his classmates weren’t as fortunate. So when he heard in late 2001 that the School of Engineering was starting a new internship program to help students better navigate the working world, he was eager to help out.

Currently in its fourth year, the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) consists of four parts. It begins during Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January with an intensive weeklong course taught by engineering and Sloan School faculty—with some help from alumni like Herschberg and other industry professionals. That is followed up by a series of seminars throughout the spring semester on topics ranging from interview skills to how to network. The centerpiece of the program is a 10- to 12-week summer internship. Finally, when students return in the fall, they gather for a post-internship reflective meeting.

Christopher Resto ’99, UPOP’s director, says the Introduction to Engineering Practice Workshop in January breaks the participants into groups of eight to 10 students, each facilitated by an alum. Within these groups, students participate in role-playing activities and games that address topics such as designing with the customer in mind and managing interpersonal conflict. One role-playing exercise has students working at a company that may outsource their jobs. The students must defend their positions before managers, including engineers, high-level management, sales staffers, and accountants. Afterward, alumni talk about their experiences in similar situations.

After IAP, students apply for internships, many using MonsterTrak, a website that connects college students with employers. Meanwhile, UPOP staff and alumni volunteers help students polish their résumés, offer advice, and conduct mock interviews. So far, UPOP students have been hired by some 200 companies or organizations, from such giants as IBM and Microsoft to four-person biotech startups. During the summer, UPOP staff and alumni volunteers visit the employers to see how the students are doing and to make sure that the students are having an educational, worthwhile experience.

Christopher Farm ’06 is a typical UPOP student. Although he was confident he could secure an internship on his own, the UPOP course content convinced him to participate in the program. “I knew UPOP could help me with skills I didn’t develop fully in high school or here,” he says. Those skills included public speaking and making presentations. Through a career fair, Farm found an internship at Procter and Gamble, where he helped design a better container for Pringles.

More than 200 students—comprising nearly 40 percent of sophomores in the School of Engineering—are participating in the program this year. But Resto hopes that even more will participate in future years. “Our philosophy is that even if students want to become university professors, it’s still important for them to appreciate practical experience,” he says. “We think we’re making a statement about undergraduate engineering education.”

Alumni who might be interested in participating in UPOP can contact Resto at cresto@mit.edu.

Kitty Companions
Cats are welcome roommates in four MIT dorms
By Catherine Nichols

After a long day of classes, many MIT students head back to their dormitories for a caffeine-fueled night with their books, problem sets… and calicos. Since 2000, when MIT’s pet policy was rewritten, four dorms—East Campus, Senior House, Bexley Hall, and Random Hall—have permitted cats in designated areas. The measure was introduced to allow students to enjoy the benefits of animal companionship and to cut down on the number of illegal cats kept in the dorms under the flat no-pets (except fish) rule. As the most popular undercover pet, cats were an obvious choice for inclusion when the pet policy opened up.

Kelsey Byers ’07 has been the pet chair of Random Hall since the end of last spring. As such, she resolves problems with specific cats and ensures that all animals are registered. Byers says that a good cat can be an immeasurable help to a dorm. Abacus, a cat in her building, will play along with whatever games students cook up and slink under their hands to be stroked when they’re sitting around. Byers swears the cat can tell which student most needs a friend; it will often cuddle up to the kid with an impossible problem set due the next day. She also says the cat brings students together and provides companionship when human friends are too demanding.

Even so, the Institute’s pet policy had to be revised last year after cat urine caused damage to Random and no one came forward as the offending cat’s owner. The housing office had to intervene. Afterward, students worked together to refine the policy, which now requires that students— and particularly pet owners—take more responsibility for the animals in their midst. Now, no cat is allowed into the dorms without a clear owner, and the policy includes a process for transferring ownership. Nina Davis-Millis, housemaster of Random Hall, says the experience of working together to rewrite the policy was a very good one for the students. Although the dorms’ feline residents require constant attention from their already very busy owners, the students seem to agree that their cats’ companionship is well worth the effort.

Literary Journal Emerges
Online outlet for multicultural students
By Tracy Staedter

To say that MIT’s student body is diverse is an understatement: this year’s students come from 106 countries. Their personal stories are colorful and varied, and a new online literary journal, E-merging: Voices on the New Diasporas, gives them a forum.

Launched in early November, the student-run website contains a mixture of creative work—including short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction by “a new generation of global student,” which is what one of the journal’s founding advisors, professor of French studies Isabelle de Courtivron, calls the contributors.

One of these students is Arthur Musah ’04, who is working on his master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He was born in his mother’s country, Russia, but at age three, Musah moved with his family to his father’s country, Ghana. While in Ghana, his family spoke English and Russian at home, ate Russian food, and listened to Russian music, while also experiencing West African culture and language. Like other students with multicultural backgrounds, he began writing to get in touch with his heritage. “Being in the U.S. brought Ghana into a sharper focus,” Musah says. Three of his poems and one piece of his fiction were selected for the site. He also served as an editor for the first issue.

Students like Musah are the primary force behind the site. They contribute work but also organize the content. About eight volunteer editors manage the site and, under the auspices of faculty advisors, select its content. “They’re not doing this for credit,” says associate professor of Chinese studies Emma Teng, one of the advisors. “I’m amazed at how much time and energy they put into it.”

The group plans to publish the journal once each semester. Current selections can be read at web.mit.edu/emerging.

New Knees
A gel could mend cartilage
By Sally Atwood

MIT and Harvard Medical School researchers have developed a less invasive method for repairing damaged cartilage. The technique involves injecting the injury with a liquid that comprises cartilage-producing cells taken from elsewhere in the patient’s body and hyaluronic acid—a natural polysaccharide—that has been modified to be light-sensitive. After minutes of exposure to ultraviolet light, the liquid gels to hold the cells in place as they start to produce new tissue. Enzymes made by the cells eventually break up the gel into water-soluble components that the body can absorb. Viewed under a microscope, the new cartilage is virtually indistinguishable from natural cartilage.

The method, which is being tested in the knees of pigs, could not only offer a way to fix cartilage but also be used for plastic surgery. Jason Burdick, the MIT chemical engineering postdoctoral fellow who is the project’s lead researcher, says the gel might one day be injected into molds to make ears and noses that plastic surgeons could use as implants. Burdick says the long-term goal is to use the patient’s stem cells, which are easily obtained through routine biopsy, rather than cartilage cells, which must be harvested in a process that does further damage to the patient.

Beyond knees, Burdick says the process could one day be used to surface entire joints, helping millions who suffer from arthritis.

Liar, Liar No More
A mathematical program draws out honest opinions
By Tracy Staedter

Do you like Joan Miró’s painting Bleu II? Even if you think it looks like something your two-year-old could have created, you might—because you want to appear cultured—answer yes. MIT psychologist Dražen Prelec has developed a mathematical “truth serum” that promotes honesty in people’s answers and opinions.

Prelec asks individuals in a group of 10 or more to answer a question and to predict how many others in their group will give the same answer. The sessions are run like a game, with Prelec awarding higher scores to people whose answers are more common than the group predicts. Prelec justifies this scoring system with his theorem which says that a true belief in a particular opinion is a clue that there are more people with that opinion than the group as a whole will predict. He feels that people will be motivated to tell the truth by their desire to get high scores.

Say, for example, that out of a group of 100 people, 90 claim to like Bleu II, but the average prediction is that 95 people will like the painting. In that case, the scoring system would give higher scores to the minority of 10 who express dislike, because their answers are twice as common as the group had predicted. (This is particularly true in situations where people believe there is a socially “correct” answer.) So, people who desire to get high scores should tell the truth, whether or not they think their opinions are widely shared.

Even though the people who truthfully answer that they like Bleu II receive a lower score in this instance, their chances of earning high scores rise as they continue to answer additional questions truthfully. Conversely, “those who are lying will find themselves more often in the loser camp,” says Prelec, as they will misrepresent their group’s predictions.

Prelec says his method would work for gathering opinions about art, humor, products, and political candidates. He envisions a Web-based game or application that would teach people to distinguish between what they truly believe and what they think they should believe.

The Human Genome, Take Two
Scientists announce a more complete and useful sequencing
By Katherine Snoda Ryan

When a sequenced human genome was announced in 2001, most people missed a crucial part of the news: the genome was a first draft, sketchy and incomplete. This fall, scientists completed a new draft. The more complete version reveals that humans have a few thousand fewer genes than was previously predicted. The new version will also allow researchers to analyze the genome on a larger scale.

Thousands of scientists affiliated with the National Human Genome Research Institute, including almost 200 from MIT, announced the completion of the new human genome draft in the October 21, 2004, issue of the journal Nature. Their higher-quality sequencing data, which gives improved coverage of the entire genome—especially the gene-rich regions—means all scientists will now be better equipped to search for the genetic causes of disease and investigate the genome’s structure and evolution.

In the 2001 rough draft, significant chunks of the genome weren’t sequenced. The gaps in the initial draft meant that researchers always had to be somewhat wary of the accuracy of the publicly available sequence, which slowed the progress of their projects. The final draft, however, accurately represents 99 percent of these gene-heavy genome regions.

The number of genes in the genome was once estimated at near 100,000 and reëstimated at about 30,000 in 2001, but the new draft suggests that it is in fact somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000. Mark Daly, a researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biological Research, isn’t concerned about this smaller number. “I don’t think it’s such an important number,” he says. “It was an easy benchmark figure.” Understanding how the genes function and interact with each other is much more valuable information, Daly says, which scientists are just starting to gather.

The more-complete sequence does allow scientists to draw some immediate conclusions about the genome, particularly about the mechanisms of gene evolution. For example, the researchers examined “gene death,” a natural process occurring over many generations in which genes acquire debilitating mutations. They found that, over time, humans have lost genes that make proteins for smelling. Today, humans have somewhere around 800 olfactory receptor genes, and only half of them appear to function. Mice, on the other hand, have around 1,000 such genes, and zebra fish only have about a hundred. “These differences in gene family number are really dramatic, indicating how fast these genes are evolving,” says Chad Nusbaum, a coauthor of the Nature paper and codirector of the sequence and analysis program at the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute.

Though the genome is still technically incomplete, the remaining regions are very difficult to sequence using existing analytical methods. “It will be another project to close the gaps, requiring new techniques,” says Nusbaum. “We will get as much as we can until the cost becomes unreasonable.”

For now, Nusbaum says that he and his colleagues are relieved to have finally finished this most recent draft. “We were being held hostage by not having the data,” he explains. “Now we can go back to understanding biology again!”

Remote Navigator
Aeronautics researchers develop a remote-controlled wingman
By Davin Wilfrid

In the skies over Edwards Air Force Base in California last June, a crewman in an F-15 entered a series of commands into a computer. Yards away, a T-33 training plane began steering through an obstacle course of no-fly zones without its pilot lifting a finger.

The demonstration was the culmination of four years of work by Mario Valenti, SM ’03, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and computer science, and Tom Schouwenaars, a doctoral candidate in aeronautics and astronautics. Using a new guidance system the two helped to develop, pilots can send commands to nearby unmanned aircraft, ordering them into dangerous or unknown areas while the pilots keep a comfortable distance. “The pilot essentially treats the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] as a wingman,” searching for and avoiding obstacles such as radar and missile sites, says Valenti.

The military has used unmanned aircraft for years, but the advantage of manned-to-unmanned control of UAVs, Valenti says, is that pilots in the air have a lot more information to work with than those on the ground and are therefore better able to steer the unmanned craft into areas of interest. “It’s like the difference between going to a Red Sox game and watching it on TV,” he says. “There’s something different about being there.”

Researchers will eventually integrate voice-recognition software into the system. Once this happens, it will be possible to bring pilots up to speed on the commands with minimal training. “We’re using the same lingo the pilots use,” says Schouwenaars.

The students estimate that the software could be ready for use in combat within a few years, if not sooner, but the project, which is funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (see “The Ascent of the Robotic Attack Jet”), has applications beyond the military. Valenti and Schouwenaars say systems like theirs can lead to advances in robotics (think: mail-fetching robots) and, if commercial planes are outfitted with the systems, better air traffic control.

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