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Saving the System
The Institute outlines its plan for strengthening FSILGs
By Sally Atwood

Ever since the Institute decided in 1998 to house all freshmen in dormitories, MIT’s fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs) have been concerned about their system’s ability to survive. Now MIT has published a plan to support and restore the ailing FSILGs. Project Aurora, the initiative described in the plan, would introduce immediate changes aimed at rebuilding FSILGs’ membership and restoring their fiscal stability; it also includes long-term strategies for strengthening the living groups in the future.

The plan is set out in the report of the Task Force on Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups, which President Charles M. Vest HM convened in spring 2003. The 16-member group of alumni, students, faculty, and staff writes bluntly that “the FSILG system must be embraced with enthusiasm or shut down; mere toleration is not a viable option.” The report acknowledges the hostility surrounding the Institute’s decision to house freshmen on campus and calls for MIT administrators, students, and alumni to work together in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. It also affirms the value of the FSILGs to students and to MIT.

The report’s action plan, which focuses heavily on fraternities, calls for continued transitional financial assistance from the Institute and changes in the rush process to increase the chances of attracting members who will bolster the fraternities financially. The plan calls for improved communication between senior administrators, alumni, and students and includes a strategy for building replacement FSILG houses on campus. It also recommends that a council of students, house corporation members, alumni, and MIT administrators develop standards and expectations for the 37 living groups.

Based on the report and initiatives already under way, alumni are optimistic about the future. “MIT is taking some positive steps,” says Stan Wulf ’65, president of Phi Delta Theta’s house corporation. “We’re encouraged.”

Balancing the Checkbook
Fiscal health is foremost in the minds of alumni and student FSILG members. It has declined precipitously in the last two years, as houses have lost their income from freshmen residents and as the number of new members coming into the system has dropped by about 30 percent. MIT has distributed $1.5 million in transitional support since the fall of 2001, but the task force says that’s not enough. Its detailed financial study of the system concluded that it will take another $10.7 million over the next six years to support the FSILGs until they are fiscally healthy. Now the team that distributed the initial funds is studying the task force report and will recommend how much more the Institute should contribute and how those funds should be distributed.

Although handouts have provided some relief, they will not fix the underlying problems. But they will stop the hemorrhaging until other pieces of the plan begin to stabilize the system.

One of the biggest pieces is an effort to increase the number of new FSILG members, who will provide the foundation for future fiscal stability. The task force recognized that the timing of rush is critical. It has recommended that rush be held between orientation and the start of classes. This happened last fall, and the switch worked well: fraternities (sororities rush in the spring) welcomed 301 new members, only about 30 shy of the number in 2000, the last year freshmen could live in the houses. Although 2004 was the most successful rush in the last three years, Dan Daneshvar ’05, president of the Interfraternity Council last year, says FSILGs would fare even better if rush could have two extra days before classes start.

In the meantime, two other fiscal programs initiated this year will help houses augment their operating budgets. The first is based on recent changes in IRS regulations. MIT’s long-standing Independent Residence Development Fund can now offer operating grants for the portions of houses that are used for educational purposes, so last summer the MIT facilities office measured each house and determined the percentage devoted to educational uses. According to Bob Ferrara ’67, who as the newly created director of FSILG alumni relations runs the program, the numbers range from 14 to 35 percent. Encouraging, says Ferrara, “but alums are going to have to step up to the plate if [this program] is going to keep going.”

A second fiscal program will leverage the buying power of the FSILG system. It works through the FSILG Coöperative, an independent organization founded in 2003 that negotiates discount contracts with vendors and pays the bills for its members. MIT gave the organization $80,000 in startup funds. Christopher R. Rezek ’99, executive director, says last year members received up-front discounts ranging from 5 to 20 percent on most services or commodities they needed to purchase. Houses saved between $1,000 and $3,000 each and an average of $1,200 in up-front expenses, and Rezek expects that the savings will increase as houses make more purchases through the coöperative.

Beyond the Dollar
Steve Immerman, cochair of the task force and transition manager of the plan, is determining what other kinds of help individual houses need. Governance, com­munications, education, and training are all pressing needs, and programs to address them are in the works. Two classes taught by MIT staffers are already in place, one for treasurers and another for house managers. The Alumni Association and the Office of Resource Development are developing fund-raising tool kits to help houses jump-start campaigns. The facili­ties department is studying where FSILG housing could be built on campus. The Interfraternity Council has convened a group to study its risk management practices and determine how to further reduce excessive drinking in the houses. And alumni are developing an accreditation system that will gather best practices and help identify problems early.

David Burmaster ’69, who has been involved on and off as an alumni advisor with his house since graduation, cautions that there is no silver bullet. Alumni need to get involved with their houses to ensure success, he says. But he is also heartened by the current climate on campus. “This is the most fertile and energetic time in 35 years,” he says. Many believe that with the plan outlined by the task force and the continued dedication of alumni, students, and administrators, MIT will one day have the best FSILG system in the country.

The complete report of the FSILG task force can be found at web.mit.edu/dsl/aurora/report.html.

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Devices dispense friendly advice
By Sally Atwood

Imagine picking up a novel at a bookstore, and instantly your cell phone receives a text message containing your friends’ opinions of the book, as well as suggestions for films you might enjoy. Media Lab doctoral candidate Hugo Liu is creating just such a system, called Ambient Semantics: a sensor embedded in a ring or wristwatch will read a radio frequency identification tag affixed to an object; the system will then search a database for information about the object and, on the basis of the wearer’s interests, send pertinent data as well as recommendations to his or her cell phone or PDA.

Ambient Semantics is powered by a database Liu built by gleaning information from Web pages, online communities, and social networks. The database, comprising some two million relationships between 100,000 items, can be used to predict personal preferences. For example, if a person likes Led Zeppelin, the database might indicate that she would also like the film School of Rock.

Liu says the next step for the system is feedback during personal interactions. Eventually, he says, when two strangers shake hands, their sensor devices will display their common interests and mutual friends, preventing missed opportunities.

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Evaluating Aid Programs
MIT economists judge which methods combat poverty the best
By Davin Wilfrid

In 2003, governments spent $68 billion on programs designed to help the world’s poorest people, according to the United Nations. But how can we tell whether these programs are actually making a difference? The answer, according to economists at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, is to compare communities that participate in a particular aid program with similar communities that do not.

Economics professor Abhijit Banerjee, one of the lab’s founders, uses an example to explain his group’s thinking. To determine whether new roads lead to greater economic well-being, he says, it’s not good enough to measure the well-being of towns with roads against the well-being of towns without roads. Instead, one should take a set of towns where roads are being planned and randomly decide the order in which the roads will be built. Then the comparison of the sites where the roads are built early and the sites where they are built later gives a valid measure of their impact.

“Often, people just ask, ‘How do you feel now that the road is built?’ Our view is that that often gives you the wrong answer,” Banerjee says. “Now we have a reasonable way of running a horse race between these different things, where for every ten dollars spent, this one really improved people’s lives and that one didn’t.”

When Banerjee first started studying aid programs, he was disturbed by the lack of solid grounds for evaluating them. “You would look at even a simple question, like, ‘Is it the case that having more textbooks or teachers improves student achievement?’, and without hard evidence, we really didn’t have any answers,” he says.

Banerjee founded the Poverty Action Lab in June 2003, along with economics professor Esther Duflo, PhD ’99, and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University. The lab now supports the two MIT professors and 13 researchers who work globally to implement randomized trials, and it collaborates with six faculty affiliates at other universities.

Sometimes the researchers’ findings square nicely with the aims of a particular program. For example, one trial conducted in rural Kenya showed significant increases in achievement among girls whose schools were selected to participate in scholarship programs. But evaluations can also indicate that programs aren’t working. A second Kenyan trial showed that children who were taught worm-prevention measures fared no better than those who weren’t.

Once the Poverty Action Lab researchers have collected enough information on different programs, they plan to divide their findings into themes, such as how to get children to go to school. The lab has 15 completed or ongoing studies, whose subjects range from affirmative action programs in India to racial discrimination in the job application process in Chicago and Boston.

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What’s Hot
Market forces influence students’ choice of major
By Sally Atwood

They are advised to major in what excites them, but undergraduate students still gravitate to what they perceive as the hot majors for the job market, even though majors often don’t determine careers. In the late 1990s it was computer science. Today it’s management. It’s possible that biological engineering will be the hot major by the end of this decade.

Robert Redwine, dean for undergraduate education, points to an increasingly diverse undergraduate student body as another possible explanation for recent changes. Since 1993, the School of Engineering has lost 22 percent of its enrollment. Some of that can be attributed to a 9 percent drop in total undergraduate enrollment, but some of it is due to the increased appeal of the Sloan School of Management, which has nearly tripled its undergraduate enrollment in the same period of time. Similarly, at the School of Science, majors in brain and cognitive sciences have more than doubled since 1993.

There are also some notable changes within individual engineering departments. Electrical engineering and computer science remains MIT’s largest department, but since the dot-com implosion in 2000, its enrollment has dropped by about 32 percent. Over the last decade, mechanical engineering has dropped 25 percent, chemical engineering 39 percent, and civil and environmental engineering 41 percent. Ocean engineering, which has a strong graduate program but few undergraduate majors, has merged with mechanical engineering.

Still, some departments in the School of Engineering have seen an uptick in enrollment. Aeronautics and astronautics is up 37 percent, and nuclear engineering is up more than 45 percent. Redwine says nuclear engineering has done a good job explaining to students what its program offers besides the ability to design nuclear power plants.

Another significant change that mirrors marketplace trends is a new major in bioengineering, which will be presented to the faculty for final approval this spring.

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Silent Treatment
Martin Marks’s music gives voice to a collection of silent films
By Lisa Scanlon

For almost a year, Martin Marks spent long hours sifting through old sheet music, writing new piano pieces, and recruiting dozens of composers and musicians to write and perform pieces for a DVD collection of silent films. He has weathered seemingly interminable weekends and stolen weekdays in Killian Hall, recording and rerecording scores, often until midnight. “Some of those weekends were exhausting,” says Marks, a senior lec­turer in the Institute’s music and theater arts program. But despite the hours, Marks says it was well worth his time to create the music for More Treasures from American Film Archives, a DVD collection of 50 films made between 1894 and 1931 that was released in the fall.

Marks has spent more than 20 years studying silent films and the music played along with them. So he was a natural choice as music curator for both More Treasures and its predecessor, Treasures from American Film Archives, which was released in 2000. Besides, he was already familiar with the archives that contributed to the collections. The first DVD draws from 18 archives and includes films from as late as 1985, while the second set focuses on the silent period and features films from five archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the U.S. Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “Marty Marks himself is a treasure,” says Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco, which produced the collections. “[He has] a deep knowledge of the history of popular music and film, an ability to perform music for silent films, and a way of writing about all of this with wit and scholarly precision.”

A pianist, Marks prepared and performed most of the scores himself. Some of them are original compositions, but many drew on tunes that were played during the silent-film period. “I do like to play the kind of music that was played in the silent period as much as possible, because I think it connects the audiences closer to the experience of the films that was originally intended,” Marks says. He also did a certain amount of improvising during the recording sessions. He says that in Killian Hall in Building 14, with the films rolling, he would see things on the screen and start to think of ways he could make the music fit better.

Marks, who just returned from a fall sabbatical, is currently writing a book on film music. Also, pending funding, he and his colleagues at the National Film Preservation Foundation are eager to create another collection of archived films. Their hope is to bring more of these hidden treasures out of the archives and into the homes of the general public.

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Turned-On Genes
Scientists learn more about gene regulators
By Lisa Scanlon

Although scientists finished a draft sequence of the human genome four years ago, little is known about how genes get called into action. Now, however, researchers at MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have begun to fill in the missing information: they have found all of the regulatory sequences in the yeast genome.

Regulatory sequences are specific parts of the genome that turn genes on and off by interacting with molecules called gene regulators. By locating these regulatory elements and thereby determining where regulators bind to the genome, scientists can deduce the regulators’ functions. The team of investigators, led by Whitehead researchers Richard Young and Ernest Fraenkel, PhD ’98, and MIT computer scientist David Gifford ’76, is particularly interested in regulators because mutated versions of them are associated with many diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

Previously, it could take years to find a regu­lator’s binding site. The MIT and Whitehead researchers developed a method to speed up the process. First they found the binding sites’ rough locations: they placed regulators on chips containing thousands of pieces of DNA and observed where they bound. Then, by using computer algorithms to compare these data with data from other yeast species, the researchers were able to identify precise binding locations. If the sequence for a potential binding site in one species of yeast exists in several other yeast species, then “it means it’s probably important for something,” and is most likely a controlling element, says Chris Harbison, a Whitehead graduate student who worked on the project. The researchers also placed cells in a dozen different environments to reveal binding locations that are only used under certain conditions.

Though the human genome is far larger and more complex than the yeast genome, researchers at Whitehead and MIT are already applying these technologies to understanding human genetics.

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Men’s Soccer Maintains Momentum
Nationally ranked varsity team could be part of a dynasty in the making
By Kathryn Beaumont

They finished the season 17-3- 1 overall and went undefeated in their conference. Their final Division III rankings were first in New England and eighth nationally. The 2003 season was clearly the best in the history of the MIT varsity men’s soccer team, and after so much success, perhaps it’s understandable that Coach Walter Alessi thought he would never see its equal. “I thought that 2003 would be the greatest season in my lifetime,” says Alessi, who admits that, before tryouts, he was a little uncertain about the quality of the freshmen players on the 2004 team.

He need not have worried. Although a 2-1 loss to Babson in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) finals prevented the men from qualifying for the NCAA tournament, the 2004 team’s 14-3-1 record was nearly the same as the 2003 team’s. The team was also declared 2004 cochampion of the New England Division III Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference. And until the Babson loss, no team had scored a first-half goal on MIT all season.

The 2004 record is particularly impressive given that more than half of the team’s 25 players were freshmen. Yet the team’s seasoned senior leaders shone in their own right. All of them won NEWMAC conference honors. Tri-captains Dan Griffith ’05, Jose-Ramon Torradas ’05, and Walter Song ’06, along with Robert Pilawa ’05, were named to the NEWMAC all-conference first team, while goalie Morgan Mills ’05 was named to the all-conference second team. In addition, Torradas broke the school’s record for all-time number of assists.

After 30 years at the helm of MIT men’s soccer, is Alessi on the verge of building a dynasty in MIT sports—which are notorious for their on-and-off successes? “I’m hopeful,” he says, “But I have been through the ups and lots of downs.” During his first 26 years, only one team won 10 or more games. In the past four years, however, every team has won at least 10 games. Still, Alessi insists, “I was happy here before this streak.” He is as close to the players on his 1981 one-win team as he is to his current crop of stars. But a 14-win season is nice, too.

Other news from around campus

Saving the System

Product Pointer

Evaluating Aid Programs

What’s Hot

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Turned on Genes

Men’s Soccer Maintains Momentum

High-tech Twine

Action-Packed Dance

Counterterrorism by Numbers

High-Tech Twine
Novel fibers can sense light
By Lisa Scanlon

Mit materials science researchers have created two flexible fibers that com­bine a semiconductor’s electronic prop­erties with the light-transmitting properties of fiber optics. One of the fibers can detect light, and the other can carry optical and electrical information at the same time without the two interfering with each other. The first fiber could be used for a new computer interface, and the second could be used as a cable to send two different classes of information.

The researchers, led by assistant professor Yoel Fink, PhD ’00, made the light-sensing fibers by creating a cylinder composed of a semiconductor core surrounded by four metal wires, all of which were covered with a polymer sheath. The team then heated the cylinder, which was 30 centimeters long and 20 millimeters in diameter, in a furnace and slowly stretched it into a fiber hundreds of meters long and less than a millimeter thick. The second fiber, which transmits both light and electronic signals, was created using the same process, although the cylinder contained different materials in different arrangements.

Because the fibers are composed of materials with different thermal properties, making them perfectly uniform along their entire length was a particularly stiff challenge. “We failed so many times,” says Mehmet Bayindir, a postdoc in the Research Laboratory of Electronics and the lead author of a recent paper in Nature about the technology.

Now that the researchers have perfected the production process, Bayindir says, the fibers could be used to replace the mouse as a computer interface. Someday, people may interact with computers by pointing beams of light at their screens. Fink and his colleagues are now creating hundreds of meters of the fibers in their lab and exploring other possible applications for them.

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Action-Packed Dance
An innovative artist in residence teaches MIT students some new moves
By Catherine Nichols

Try to achieve a horizontal levitation,” Elizabeth Streb instructs a gymnasium full of MIT students as she hovers parallel to the floor. Only her palms are touching the mat beneath her. The students are having some trouble following her lead, as is their teacher: in the back, Thomas DeFrantz, an associate professor of music and theater arts, laughs as he falls over. DeFrantz invited the dancer to spend four days on campus in October as an artist in residence, during which time she gave the Abramowitz Memorial Lecture, taught the class in the gym, and visited students and professors.

Streb is an innovator in dance and leader of Streb, a dance company based in New York City. She says she creates “‘page-turners’ of actions,” a metaphor that makes a little more sense when she shows slides of her historic leap through a sheet of glass, or when she falls straight backward without bending or flinching. She even lit herself on fire once as part of a performance. In spite of the potential for pain, Streb assures the students that the moves she is teaching them are all perfectly safe and probably healthy.

All the same, DeFrantz has a few aches the next day. Streb’s visit was just what he had hoped, though—a way to encourage a “maverick streak in the students, who are innovators in their areas,” he says. Unlike Streb, DeFrantz is not interested in training MIT students in a particular mode of dance. He wants to show students from different fields some interesting ways to think about their bodies and about physical space. Then they can incorporate those ideas into their work in the classroom or lab. He wouldn’t be at MIT if he wanted to train professional dancers, he says. “You get a room of trained dancers and you explain a problem to them, and they all come up with the same solution,” DeFrantz says. “But you get a room full of MIT students, and they’re all thinking of different things—things I never would have come up with. I just love that!”

In the gym with Streb, the students looked like they loved it, too. Many of them were levitating, and most of them were laughing.

Other news from around campus

Saving the System

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Counterterrorism by Numbers
How mathematics can help break terrorist cells
By Davin Wilfrid

Jonathan d. farley, visiting associate professor of mathematics, believes that math could save lives. For much of the past two years, he has studied mathematical tools that could improve U.S. efforts to combat global terrorism, and now his work is attracting attention from defense-related organizations.

Farley employs “order theory”—a branch of abstract mathematics that looks at the hierarchies within groups—to characterize the terrorist cells that intelligence agencies are trying to break up. At present, some intelligence researchers use graphs to plot the organization of cell networks: points represent individual terrorists, connected by lines that denote communication. The problem, Farley says, is that such graphs don’t take into account the chains of command within cells. Order theory, he believes, would allow an agency to determine whether it has broken up a cell—and possibly foiled an act of terrorism—with greater certainty. With increased efficiency, counterterrorism agencies could free up money and energy for other operations.

This type of work is a big change for a “pure” mathematician whose research usually has no immediate practical application. “I thought it might be nice to actually do something that’s useful and potentially life saving,” Farley says. And while the math in this project is not as complex as his usual research, the potential benefits make it worthwhile. “I knew that significant mathematics need not be sophisticated mathematics,” he says.

Farley published his ideas in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism in November 2003; that same year, he cofounded a company called Phoenix Mathematical Systems Mod­eling to turn his ideas into software that will help intelligence agencies. He has spoken with interested defense organizations, including the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the Alexandria, VA–based Institute for Defense Analyses, and hopes to have a product ready within five years.

Other news from around campus

Saving the System

Product Pointer

Evaluating Aid Programs

What’s Hot

Silent Treatment

Turned on Genes

Men’s Soccer Maintains Momentum

High-tech Twine

Action-Packed Dance

Counterterrorism by Numbers

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