Approaching a global challenge from the bottom up often results in transformative large-scale impact. Such is the theme that threads many of the researchers, engineers, and scientists within MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE).
The annual CEE Research Speed Dating event, held this year on Feb. 18, encourages creative collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, and unites students and faculty who work in different fields. This year, the event brought together 27 CEE faculty, researchers, and students, and more than 120 other attendees, to present research, stimulate conversation, and evoke community networking.
Innumerable complex challenges face engineers and scientists who strive to build a more sustainable future: comprehending the Earth’s oceans and climate, ensuring sufficient food as the population continues to rise, and designing efficient cities and transportation systems, just to name a few. To successfully plan, design, and build around those challenges, event organizers believe scientists and engineers need to come together in partnership.
“For new faculty like me, this event is a great opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in our department and to exchange ideas in an interdisciplinary context,” said event co-organizer and CEE Assistant Professor Admir Masic, who joined the department in September 2015. The other co-organizer Otto Cordero, an assistant professor in CEE, joined the department in July 2015.
“The challenges that fall within the CEE vision are all connected under the umbrella of using the power of science and engineering to build a sustainable future,” said Markus Buehler, CEE department head and the McAfee Professor of Engineering. “With this event, we can engage our faculty, staff, and students in creative collaboration with their peers and spur critical developments that span from the basic understanding of how nature works, to engineering human-made systems at scale.”
The annual program — featuring five-minute talks followed by a one-minute Q&A — showcased the many faces of CEE, and centered on four themed discussions: new ways to look at multiscale modeling, carbon cycling, complex systems, and designing novel structures and materials.
New perspectives for large-scale impact
Michael Follows, joint professor of CEE and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), opened the event with a question: What sets the functional biogeography of nitrogen fixation in the ocean?
“To effectively build theoretical models that allow us to understand the biogeography, we need to be able to first describe the costs and benefits of nitrogen fixation,” he said. In this case, predicting the availability of nitrogen and iron delivered to the surface ocean. In his lab, Follows constructs prognostic ocean and climate models to further understanding of how the biogeography might change in response to other environmental circumstances. Scientists can use such modeling at an atomic level to predict the larger impact on ecology.
Two other conference speakers — graduate student Anna Tarakanova SM ’15 and postdoc Ross Alter — also highlighted the importance of breaking down a challenge to its roots in order to uncover answers.
In his presentation, Alter discussed his work with Elfatih Eltahir, associate head of CEE, exploring how expansive cropland irrigation affects rainfall patterns in the East African Sahel around the Gezira Irrigation Scheme. Alter, in collaboration with others, compared simulations from theoretical models with several decades of observational evidence to reveal how irrigation has consistently enhanced rainfall in areas to the east of the irrigated lands, while reducing rainfall directly over them.
The strategic placement of individualized irrigated cropland might make a world of difference for both regional and global economies, Alter said.
Tarakanova presented recent findings from her research in using molecular modeling to determine the structure and interactions within elastin — one of the body’s most durable and versatile component proteins. Studying the hierarchical structure of natural materials such as elastin paves the way for understanding fundamentals of protein assembly, and enables the design of new materials atom-by-atom, she said.
Postdoc Diego López Barreiro echoed the sentiment that new techniques are needed to understand many challenges — particularly in regards to his study of the bottom-up design of biocrude oils.
“Can we reproduce in five minutes a task for which the Earth needed millions of years [such as biocrude oil formation]?” López Barreiro asked the audience. “Yes, yes we can.” Using a technique that employs high-temperature, high-pressure liquid water to convert different types of biomass into biocrude oil, Barreiro is hopeful to fill remaining gaps of understanding.
Out of the lab, into the world
Every time you swim in the ocean, you immerse yourself in a solution of viruses. The majority of these viruses, however, are of little consequence to humans, as they primarily infect bacteria — as they have been doing for hundreds of millions of years, postdoc Kathryn Kauffman said in her talk.
“To a virus, a good host is as unique in a crowd as you are to your mother,” she said. “We need live bacteria to understand the diversity in a controlled and systematic fashion.” To explore this research, Kauffman has isolated hundreds of new viruses for the well-characterized Vibrio Model System of marine bacteria developed in Professor Martin Polz's lab. The Vibrio are important contributors to organic matter cycling in the ocean and this model system allows the team to readily isolate and characterize new strains of bacteria and viruses to systematically evaluate their interactions in their ecology and evolution.
CEE Professor Charles Harvey took the stage next to discuss his fieldwork in Indonesia, specifically on the island of Brunei, researching the hydrology and carbon cycling of the region’s peat swamp forests. Many peatlands, as a result of land shortage and a rising demand for palm oil, are releasing carbon into the atmosphere at unsettling rates — a direct result of the lands being drained and deforested to make way for agriculture and oil palm plantations. These consistently harmful actions to the land yield dire ecological consequences.
"Events such as the Speed Dating [event] are necessary if we want to establish bridges of collaboration between our research areas — something that has been particularly helpful in my work," Harvey said. "This is what puts us at the forefront of engineering innovation."
Such a tangible approach has also been represented in 1.092 (Traveling Research Environmental Experiences, or TREX), offered each year during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP). Postdoc Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz used his time at the event to relay the ecological findings from the TREX 2016 expedition to the Big Island of Hawaii.
For two weeks, Isaacman-VanWertz and a group of seven undergraduates used portable, homemade Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) sensors to analyze the adverse effects of Mt. Kilauea’s vog on the surrounding environment.
“Going into the field and emerging with concrete data is hugely important in the field of environmental studies,” Isaacman-VanWertz said. “The students and I are looking forward to using this semester to analyze the samples collected during our time in Hawaii.”
The unique blend of teamwork, field research, and data analysis lends itself to a truly memorable experience for all those who participate in TREX, he added.
In his talk, Corentin Fivet, a postdoc, proposed that it was a similar cooperation between architects and engineers that ensured success for the conception and construction of the Sean Collier Memorial: a remarkable structure on the MIT campus comprised of 32 pieces of polished granite in the form of five radial walls and arches, converging at a keystone above an open space.
It took a group of people from different fields and specializations to devise the Collier Memorial, he said: "This is what makes the structure and MIT beautiful as a whole."
Tackling challenges smaller than the eye can see
Every day, people rely on bridges and roads for their morning commute, structurally sound buildings to house their families, fresh air for their lunchtime outings, and potable water. All of these expected aspects of daily life are dependent on the scientists and engineers who dig deep to catch imperceptibly tiny complications.
In their talks, two conference speakers — graduate student Justin Chen and postdoc Hao Sun — emphasized the importance of their work in monitoring the durability, or health, of structures.
“How do we maintain infrastructure operations, despite a changing environment and the natural batter of the elements?” Chen asked the audience. One way is through a computer-vision technique called "motion magnification," which allows Chen and his colleagues to successfully catch miniscule vibrations in structures. These structural movements cannot be seen by the naked eye, he said, and are crucial to ensure the function of infrastructure.
Sun and Chen work in collaboration with CEE Professor Oral Buyukozturk on the Kuwait-MIT Signature Project — a three-year old project spearheading the development of innovative solutions and methodologies for the sustainability of Kuwait’s built environment in extreme conditions.
“We can use our structural health monitoring techniques in a range of ways, through observing the motion of structures — such as the Green Building on MIT campus and the Al-Hamra tower in Kuwait City — to temporally assess the structural operational condition,” Sun said.
Masic, whose presentation centered on using ancient materials as inspiration for the design of future materials, also said that engineering innovation often lies within the details. Nature has a lot of knowledge to offer as well, he added. He uses insight gained from studying proven ancient technologies to ensure that materials created today are durable — especially when faced with anthropogenic impacts and environmental degradation.
Cordero mirrored his co-oraganizer's perspective, through a discussion on how microbial interactions in the ocean can impact the carbon cycle. “There is a whole world of ecological interactions between microbes that sets in motion the dynamics of ecosystems,” he said. “While these connections take place at micro scales, their impact can be perceived at much greater scales. In our lab, we build a bottom-up approach.”
Coaching the next generation of innovators
“One of things that struck me most during my mini-UROP experience was realizing how much encompasses CEE,” said first-year Susan (Daly) Wettermark. “There really are all types of diverse opportunities in the department.”
Wettermark was one of three freshmen presenters during this year’s Speed Dating event — all of which participated in the Course 1 mini-Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) during this year’s IAP. Her time in the program was spent working with mentor PhD student Grace Xiang Gu on mechanical testing of composite materials. Wettermark and Gu worked all month to understand how materials like shell or bone, which have weak components, can still be so tough. Two other freshmen — Ann M. Hughes and Ethan McGarrigle — also presented their UROP work.
“Immersing students at the freshmen level in projects that emphasize testing science in a real-world context is what CEE is all about,” Masic said. “Taking risks, pushing boundaries, forging connections in the name of innovation. These are all the qualities that distinguish CEE as a leader in engineering for the future.”