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Four graduate students win Lemelson prizes

The Lemelson-MIT Program today announced the winners of two $30,000 student prizes. Amy B. Smith is winner of the sixth annual Student Prize for inventiveness, while Michael Lim, Jalal Khan and Thomas Murphy are recipients of the Student Team Prize, a new award this year given for innovativeness in telecommunications and networking technologies.


The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded each year to an MIT student who demonstrates remarkable inventiveness and who serves as an inspiring science and technology role model for young Americans.

This year's winner, Amy Smith (SM 1984), is a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program whose Phase-Change Incubator won the B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors award last fall (MIT Tech Talk, November 24, 1999). She has a firm commitment to using technology to solve problems in the developing world, especially Africa, where she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1986-90.

"Necessity is the mother of invention, but it has often struck me that the most needy are often the least empowered to invent," she said. To that end, she is participating in a project to redesign medical laboratory equipment for use in remote clinics and field laboratories in developing countries.

Her Phase-Change Incubator does not require electricity; it utilizes a phase-change material for heating and temperature maintenance rather than relying upon delicate instruments such as thermostats or electronic controls. This practical piece of equipment will be low maintenance, a necessity in remote areas, and come with a much lower pricetag than comparable lab equipment.

Ms. Smith is now working on a new clamp for regulating the flow of intravenous fluids, which will be especially critical during epidemic outbreaks in rural areas, enabling nurses to control the flow rate quickly and reliably and thereby serve more patients. Using the same phase-change technology as in the laboratory incubator, she has also invented a microscope slide warmer to prepare the slides for rapid tuberculosis diagnosis.

Another of her inventions is a grain mill adapted for rural areas of developing countries where women traditionally spend up to four hours a day grinding grain by hand.

"While this task could be done in about a minute using a motorized hammermill, these devices often break down, and the screen used to collect the flour is expensive to replace since it can't be built locally," said Ms. Smith. She designed and built this new screenless hammermill and tested it in Senegal. The mill was created at one-fourth the cost of conventional mills, used less energy and produced a superior product.

"While technology is often seen as increasing the 'digital divide,' technology is also needed to decrease that divide. Amy Smith is the perfect example of an inventor-innovator who's using technology to close that gap," said Lester C. Thurow, chair of the Lemelson-MIT awards board. "Her dedication to appropriate technologies invention is refreshing; Amy's mechanical designs could benefit thousands."

Ms. Smith, a native of Lexington, plans to finish her master's degree in 2001, focusing on technology transfer to developing countries. She earned the SB in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1984 before spending four years in Botswana with the Peace Corps. She earned the SM in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1995.


The new $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Team Prize was given to the three doctoral students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) -- Michael Lim, Jalal Khan and Thomas Murphy -- for their fabrication and design research in integrated optical devices. The methodology developed by the three could facilitate additional breakthroughs in the high-capacity telecommunications transmission industry.

In particular, the team's imaginative and highly accurate process for fabricating integrated optical add/drop filters paves the way for large-scale manufacture of complex integrated optical devices. These techniques could greatly improve the capacity and functionality of fiber-optical telecommunications. Mr. Lim and Mr. Murphy are also part of a team that holds a US patent for their wavelength-selective optical add/drop switch, another complex integrated optical device.

"The winning team's integrated optical device fabrication and design methodology typifies the kind of creativity in theory and practice that both Unisphere Solutions and the Lemelson-MIT Program seek to reward and cultivate," said Jim Dolce, president of Unisphere Solutions, Inc., of Burlington, the company sponsoring the student team prize. Unisphere Solutions produces converged network-ready solutions used to construct telecommunications services.

Michael H. Lim holds the SB in EECS from MIT (1993) and the MS in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California (1995). He plans to complete his PhD this year. Mr. Lim is conducting graduate research on improving X-ray lithography masks, and holds a joint patent for a new X-ray mask configuration. He was born in Seoul, South Korea.

Mohammad Jalal Khan is a candidate for the PhD in electrical engineering in 2000. He earned the SB (1994) and SM (1996) from MIT in that same field. An expert in the cutting-edge methodology of wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) as applied to high-capacity optical telecommunications, Mr. Khan conducted experiments last summer at Tellabs, Inc. to gauge the performance of WDM optical links. He has spent more than three years conducting integrated optics experiments at the Research Laboratory of Electronics. He was born in Karachi, Pakistan.

Thomas E. Murphy expects to receive the PhD in EECS this year. He earned BS degrees in electrical engineering and in physics from Rice University in 1994, and the SM in electrical engineering from MIT in 1997. In addition to the patent he holds jointly with Mr. Lim, Mr. Murphy has received a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship (1994-97), the T.W. Bonner Book Prize in Physics (1993, 1994) and numerous engineering scholarships. He is a native of Arlington, VA.

The Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The program, based at the Sloan School, celebrates inspirational role models in the fields of science, engineering, medicine and entrepreneurship in the hope of encouraging future generations to follow their examples.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 9, 2000.

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