• MIT student Hannah Sullivan takes a water sample from a well in the village of Mahilwari, Nepal, assisted by a villager. Sullivan and seven colleagues visited villages in Nepal to test inexpensive ways to make drinking water safe.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Graduate student Saul Griffith looks through the lens molder of the portable device he invented to make low-cost prescription eyeglasses for people in the developing world. He won the Collegiate Inventors Competition and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.

    Photo courtesy / Saul Griffith

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Making a splash in 2002:

Landmarks in MIT science in the year gone by


Here are several of the top MIT science and engineering stories of 2002 with the date of the Tech Talk issue in which they appeared.

Jan. 16--Speaking to DNA

It's not exactly "ET, phone home," but MIT researchers reported in Nature that they can "speak" to DNA biomolecules with radio waves.

Radio-controlled biology may lead to single-atom or single-molecule machines, or the ability to hook tiny antennae into living systems to turn genes on and off, and will have a broad range of applications, said Shuguang Zhang, associate director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering, an author of the study with Joseph M. Jacobson, associate professor at the Media Lab.

Jan. 30--Sugar Jackets and Cancer

MIT scientists wielding molecular scissors showed for the first time that the sugar jackets of cancer cells can be tailored to inhibit tumors.

The work, which could lead to drugs that attack cancer cells in a very specific manner, was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The MIT team is led by Associate Professor Ram Sasisekharan of the Biological Engineering Division.

March 13--Soldier of the Future

The Army selected MIT for the five-year, $50 million Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN); industry will contribute an additional $40 million. ISN researchers will develop ideas such as an Army uniform that is nearly invisible, soft clothing that can become a rigid cast when a soldier breaks a limb, and paper-weight chainmail. Edwin Thomas, professor of materials science and engineering, is ISN director.

March 13--Cellular Therapy

Scientists from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and MIT used a combination of nuclear transplantation, gene therapy and embryonic stem cell differentiation to create custom-tailored cellular therapy that shows promise in mice. The work, a collaboration between Professor of Biology and Whitehead member Rudolf Jaenisch and Whitehead Fellow George Daley, was published online as two companion papers in Cell.

April 23--Mirror Fibers

MIT researchers created high-performance mirrors in the shape of hair-like flexible fibers that could be woven into cloth or incorporated in paper. Applications include fabrics with embedded "bar codes" that identify the wearer, potentially useful in the battle suits of future soldiers, or a lightweight cloth that reflects radiation, protecting from blasts of heat. Yoel Fink, a professor in materials science and engineering, is leader of the work.

April 25--Plastics with Memory

A smart suture that ties itself into the perfect knot kicks off the first of many potential medical applications for new biodegradable plastics with "shape memory" developed at MIT and the University of Technology in Aachen, Germany. The materials are safe for use in a living animal.

An an example, the new plastics, reported in Science, could first be shaped as a string and then, when heated, could "change into a sheet (to prevent adhesion between two internal tissues after an operation), a screw (for holding bones together), a stent or a suture," said Robert Langer, MIT's Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.

May 2--Viruses Put to Work

Viruses subvert their hosts to pump out masses of new viruses. In an unusual twist, a researcher reported in Science that she used genetically engineered viruses that are noninfectious to humans to mass-produce tiny materials for next-generation semiconductor materials. Researchers including Angela Belcher, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering, are interested in using the processes to design new biological-electronic hybrid materials that could be used to assemble electronic materials at the nanoscale.

Sept. 5--Monkey See: One-Two-Three

MIT scientists who taught monkeys the numbers one to five believe the effect this had on the monkeys' brain cells may shed light on how people process number concepts. The Picower Center for Learning and Memory researchers, led by Professor of Neuroscience Earl Miller, published their findings in Science. "Several studies have suggested that nonverbal human infants and monkeys have basic numerical abilities that provide a foundation on which the higher numerical aptitude of adult humans is built," said Miller. "This study shows how and where these abilities are encoded in the monkey brain and, by extension, the human brain."

Sept. 11--Human Cloning: Unsafe

MIT and Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research scientists confirmed that the cloning process jeopardizes the integrity of an animal's whole genome. The study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, implies that cloning for the purpose of producing a human being is unsafe and unethical. Scientists had suspected this based on studying a mere dozen genes, but the new study expansively surveyed 10,000 genes for abnormalities. Using DNA arrays, researchers from the lab of Professor of Biology Rudolf Jaenisch found that approximately one in every 25 genes was abnormally expressed in placentas from cloned mice, and to a lesser extent, the livers of cloned mice exhibited abnormal gene expression.

Oct. 4--Aerial Acrobatics

A team of MIT researchers looked on recently as the pilot of their model X-Cell 60 helicopter flipped a switch on a remote control box. In response to this simple command, the chopper executed a complex maneuver never before performed autonomously by a helicopter.

It rolled 180 degrees, flew upside-down for an instant, then completed a half-loop to end up flying upright in the opposite direction. This maneuver, called a split-S, allows an aircraft to reverse direction quickly in a horizontally confined space. It is one of a variety of aggressive, agile maneuvers that the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles will be expected to perform in military combat. Eric Feron, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a researcher in the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, leads the team of researchers in aerial robotics.

Oct. 28--Transatlantic Touch

In a milestone that conjures up the refrain to a Paul McCartney song, researchers at MIT and University College London linked "hands across the water" in the first transatlantic touch, literally "feeling" each other's manipulations of a small box on a computer screen.

Potential applications abound. "In addition to sound and vision, virtual reality programs could include touch as well," said Mandayam Srinivasan, director of MIT's Touch Lab and leader of the MIT team, who holds appointments in the Research Laboratory of Electronics and Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Oct. 30--Scientific 'Whodunit'

Prion diseases, such as mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, have stumped scientists for decades with a complex "whodunit" complete with many suspects and a missing murder weapon. Research from Susan Lindquist, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and MIT professor of biology, and Jiyan Ma of Ohio State University suggests a unifying theory that can help explain how these devastating diseases get started and how they kill.

Nov. 21--Arsenic in Bangladesh

Naturally occurring arsenic in water drawn from family wells in Bangladesh is making millions of people sick and may be causing as many as 3,000 deaths each year. The arsenic appears to have been released through a process involving crop irrigation, at least in one part of the country.

At a research site in southern Bangladesh, scientists led by Charles Harvey, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, calculated that irrigation pumping, which began in the last several decades, has dramatically altered groundwater flow through the aquifer. A paper published in Science shows that the resulting changes to the chemistry of the groundwater have the potential to either increase or decrease arsenic levels. Harvey said that replacing 31 percent of the country's most tainted wells with deeper wells will eliminate about 70 percent of the illness, assuming that arsenic levels remain low in the deep wells.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 8, 2003.


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