MIT News: Civil & Environmental Engineering

June 22, 2018

  • Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall (1978) Professor and director of MIT’s Device Research Laboratory, has been named head of the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, effective July 1.

    “Professor Wang’s accomplishments as a researcher and as an educator have been remarkable,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering. “I am very pleased she has agreed to take on this role for Course 2. She is a true community builder and will do great things for the department. I look forward to her leadership and her input on the School of Engineering’s future.”

    An internationally recognized leader in phase change heat transfer on nanostructure surfaces, Wang’s research focuses on high-efficiency energy and water systems. Her work on solar cells that convert heat into focused beams of light was named as one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 breakthrough technologies of 2017. Her work on the development of a device that can extract fresh water from the air in arid environments was selected by Scientific American and the World Economic Forum as one of 2017’s 10 promising emerging technologies. 

    Currently the associate department head for operations in MechE, Wang has served as co-chair of the department’s strategic planning committee and the MechE-Lincoln Laboratory Task Force. She has taught and mentored hundreds of Course 2 students; more than 10 of her former graduate students and postdocs currently serve as faculty members at various institutions.

    Wang received a DARPA Young Faculty Award in 2008, an Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Award in 2011, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Bergles-Rohsenow Young Investigator Award in Heat Transfer in 2012, and she was honored by the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program Award in 2012. Wang is also a 2016 recipient of the ASME Electronic and Photonic Packaging Division Women Engineer Award; in 2017 she won the ASME Gustus Larson Memorial Award and the MIT Bose Award, and was named one of Foreign Policy’s “Global ReThinkers.” Wang is also an ASME Fellow and has 20 filed or pending patents.

    Wang received her bachelor’s degree in mechnical engineering from MIT in 2000, and MS and PhD degrees from Stanford University in 2001 and 2006, respectively. 

    She will replace Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor in Power Engineering, who has been department head since July 1, 2013. “I am thankful for Gang’s tremendous leadership in MechE,” Chandrakasan noted. “He has hired amazing new faculty members, deftly managed the challenges of huge growth in Course 2 enrollments, and been a key leader in securing support for students and faculty, as well as for spaces that will allow for continued cutting-edge research and other activities that make MechE such a distinctive community.”

  • Along with asteroids, the moon, and the International Space Station, there are hundreds of small, 10-centimeter cubes orbiting planet Earth. Alexa Aguilar, a first-year graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is helping these small satellites, called CubeSats, communicate.

    “We’d like to expand this to what we call ‘swarm technology.’ Imagine you have three, four, up to, you know, x-amount of little cubes that can talk to each other with lasers,” she explains.“You could have these massive constellations of them! For example, you could have a cluster [of CubeSats] here, a cluster there, and each of the clusters has its own camera. They could talk to each other with lasers, and they could send imaging data, and you could computationally mesh all of the [individual] pictures that they’re taking to form a massive picture in space.”

    A picture like this could offer a cost-effective way to monitor Earth. In cases of natural disasters, which require rapid response and constant updates, such observational capabilities could be life-saving.

    Aguilar is a builder of connections in many other aspects of her life as well. A space enthusiast, supporter of women in STEM, and mentor to other AeroAstro students, she exudes a natural warmth and self-assurance that brings people together.

    Discovering herself in Cambridge

    As an electrical engineering student at the University of Idaho, Aguilar didn’t always foresee herself at MIT. “My path to MIT really blossomed out of a summer internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) when I was in undergrad,” she says. “I met a lot of awesome people, and everyone was doing something more incredible than the last person I’d heard.”

    Some of the friends she made there encouraged her to look into the Space Telecommunications, Astronomy, and Radiation Laboratory (STAR Lab), where Aguilar now does her research.

    Despite the many friendships she has forged at MIT, Aguilar sometimes struggles with the distance from her close-knit family in Idaho. Sundays are her unofficial Skype day with her mom, with whom she is particularly close. (They share a hard-headedness, Aguilar says with a smile.) Luckily, New England offers at least one of the comforts of home: Aguilar is an avid skier. This winter she attended the yearly MIT Graduate Student Council ski trip with her AeroAstro and JPL colleagues — along with some new MIT friends.

    Aguilar enjoys the modern energy of Cambridge, calling it “a really nice mesh of cutting-edge technology and young, excited people who want to do cool things with it.” She also takes full advantage of the cultural opportunities in the area. She and her boyfriend share an avid interest in Japanese art and culture, and enjoy visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, which houses one of the largest collections of Japanese art in the world outside of Japan. Most recently, they visited a vibrant exhibit by artist Takashi Murakami.

    Aguilar also circulates among the area restaurants, which she has thoroughly researched. “I’m trying really hard to be a foodie,” she laughs earnestly. Her favorite area restaurant, Coreanos, offers Korean-Mexican fusion — perhaps not coincidentally, this reflects Aguilar’s own heritage.

    Aguilar’s mother is Korean and her father is Mexican and Native American, but Aguilar’s upbringing wasn’t strongly influenced by her parents’ ethnic backgrounds. Recently, though, Aguilar has felt pulled to explore her Mexican heritage more fully.

    “It’s actually been a really interesting journey in discovering what my cultural background means to me,” she says. Aguilar recalls her grandfather, a Mexican immigrant, telling her she didn’t need to learn Spanish as a child. However, she also recalls seeing him transform into a new person at his favorite Mexican restaurant, where he would banter with the cooks and servers in his native language.

    Though he has recently passed away, Aguilar and her sister are actively trying to use Spanish to feel closer to their grandfather and to understand his heritage: “[I think about] the little ways he did pass his culture on that he didn’t realize. … It’s like discovering a part of myself.”

    Women supporting women

    Another activity close to Aguilar’s heart is her involvement with Graduate Women in Aerospace Engineering (GWAE), a student group geared toward recruiting and supporting women in the AeroAstro department at MIT. “We have an incredible support group. The GWAE [members] are all pretty tight-knit, which is exactly the kind of community we are trying to foster,” she says. 

    The group has four arms: community building, a women-in-STEM speaker series, mentorship, and outreach and recruitment. As the current co-president of GWAE, Aguilar is involved in all of these efforts. “It's important to me that women have this kind of support and encouragement because I wouldn’t be here without the support of women,” she says.

    Aguilar welcomes the opportunity to build that same support in AeroAstro today.

    She has many thoughts on why more women don’t pursue graduate work in aerospace engineering: “I think what happens … is a lot of women undergraduates go into industry — which is awesome, we’re really happy about that because it means a lot of them get job offers and they’re excited to go out and work. But most of the incoming graduate women come from undergraduate aerospace programs, and I think a lot of women [from other fields] may be intimidated to apply to the program. So then we don’t have the input to compensate for the number of women who have gone off to industry.”

    As such, GWAE works hard to make the department seem approachable — a task to which Aguilar seems particularly well-suited.

    She is grateful to have a female advisor in Kerri Cahoy, the Rockwell International Career Development Professor, whom she deeply admires. “She’s a rock star. She’s amazing — I don’t know how she does it. She’s involved in multiple flight projects, which are projects that are bound for orbit … she has a career, she has a family, she’s super successful. … [I want to say,] teach me your secrets!”

    Aguilar is also a mentor to undergraduate women in the department and delights in helping her mentees secure the best internships and other opportunities that they can.

    While Aguilar is still deciding whether to pursue a doctoral degree in the AeroAstro program or to conclude her work with a master’s degree, she is confident that she will remain involved in space research and engineering. Space, to Aguilar, is less a frontier than a dynamo for scientific progress: It generates research that, when applied, will eventually also transform more down-to-Earth technologies.

    “Space research is going to be where so much exciting new science and technology comes from,” Aguilar says. “You hear a lot about Mars 2020 … but the technology it takes to get us there is actually really incredible. I’m excited to see emergent applications like how our internet is going change because we’re trying to get people to Mars. We need the same technology to send a message to the moon that we need to relay to Mars, and it’s that technology that’s going to have global impact.”

June 21, 2018

  • Bruno Verdini is executive director of the MIT-Harvard Mexico Negotiation Program, a lecturer in urban planning and negotiation at MIT, and co-founder of MIT’s concentration in negotiation and leadership. He teaches The Art and Science of Negotiation, one of MIT’s highest ranked and most popular electives (with over 500 students from 20 different departments pre-registering per year), and leads training and consulting work for governments, firms, and international organizations around the world. The research underpinning his new book with MIT Press, "Winning Together: The Natural Resource Negotiation Playbook," was the winner of Harvard Law School’s award for best research paper of the year in negotiation, mediation, decision-making, and dispute resolution. He talked with the MIT Energy Initiative following a recent seminar in which he discussed his research and shared expertise on negotiating for mutual gains.

    Q. What drew you to study negotiation, and has your interest always been in conflict resolution, or did that evolve over time?

    A. I fell in love with the field because it requires a full engagement, with mind, hands, and heart. Negotiations are present in every single professional activity and in our daily personal lives. They entail feeling comfortable with the unknown but curious about how to render it familiar, through individual preparation and collaborative decision-making, showcasing the ability to persuade and the desire to be persuaded, as well. As such, it is an eminently human endeavor, highly analytical and at the same time spiritual. Whether we find ourselves with family, friends, colleagues, partners, or foes, negotiations offer an opportunity to communicate and pursue our principles and aspirations, and as such, a chance to learn from each other (and inevitably, about ourselves!). That’s a transformative opportunity. Whether we have the foresight, willpower, and humility to root out our blind spots, move away from vicious cycles, and build new and better bridges, is up to us. I embrace that responsibility at the heart of the field, as it involves constant self-reflection and the belief that we can learn from our past to change our present and build a better future. In sum, I experience negotiation as an exhilarating expedition that brings new challenges every day, and where our moral compass plays a crucial role.

    Q. For your book, you interviewed more than 70 high-ranking officials who were involved in U.S.-Mexico negotiations around energy resources in the Gulf of Mexico as well as water and environmental resources within the Colorado River Basin. How did your conversations with them inform your thinking on the kinds of challenges people need to be aware of and overcome to maximize the potential for successful negotiations?

    A. Look around, at work or on your way home, and you’ll see people with self-serving biases and faulty beliefs that cause them to miss opportunities and arrive at needless standoffs. Look inward, and you’ll probably see a couple of hurdles keeping you from being your best version, too. Decades of empirical research support the notion that we tend to see stakeholders and situations in biased ways, with harmful effects at the negotiating table (and beyond). We all struggle with change in different ways at different moments, so, without proactively documenting and practicing against these traps, once we return to complex, ambiguous, stressful, highly competitive, and rapidly changing situations in our professional or personal life, the cognitive and motivational biases that besiege us tend to re-emerge. Against this backdrop, on a transboundary scale, I wanted to examine and piece together, through the eyes of the stakeholders on all sides and across all levels, whether and how these blind spots and faulty beliefs had been dislodged, as part of the efforts to solve high-stakes resource management conflicts that had lasted for over seven decades. In my experience, whenever you focus on how people work side-by-side against the problem (rather than against each other), good insights tend to emerge.

    Q. Which negotiating strategies do you consider crucial no matter what area you’re working in, be it natural resources, politics, business, or another area?

    A. There are so many, depending on the scenario, the stakes, and both the processes and outcomes we want to foster. In "Winning Together," I focus in on 12 strategies in approximate chronological order, from well before a negotiation is initiated to follow-up measures after an agreement has been implemented. One element to reiterate is that there are great differences between acquiring power and wielding it effectively. A zero-sum mindset, which is quite frequent in the world, can secure the first, but is seldom useful for the latter. If we want to address the complex challenges that besiege our communities, instead of blaming each other or kicking problems down the road, we have to foster leadership practices that better unearth all valuable sources of information and empower willing stakeholders to shape meaningful action. Communities need to provide each other the opportunity to build together and test new courses of action during a pilot period. Such trials can garner support, easing fears of the unknown by securing an end date from the outset. Once the pilot is underway, stakeholders can experience its impacts firsthand. Should the pilot result in more benefits than costs, the stakeholders will become advocates for this approach. In sum, a commitment to put ourselves in the other sides’ shoes, when intertwined with reciprocity, tends to lead to more creative solutions, a shared sense of fairness, and resilience in the implementation of partnerships. Communities thrive when we do that.

  • MIT has identified the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse as a potential new location for the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). The proposed move would let the Institute create a new hub for design research and education, allow the school to expand its full range of activities, and open new spaces for public use.

    The building would need renovation, a process that would require approval from the City of Cambridge.

    While MIT has previously considered other functions for the landmark building, using it as an interdisciplinary academic center — while expanding the capacities of SA+P’s highly rated programs — could bring about a wide array of benefits for students, faculty, and the larger community.

    Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, emphasizes that students, staff, and faculty throughout the Institute would find an intellectual home in the proposed new building.

    “It’s about really creating a design hub for MIT on the campus, bringing the expanding and increasingly important areas of design from across MIT — art, architecture, and urban planning — together in one place,” says Sarkis. “Moving does not address just the school’s aspirations, but MIT’s aspirations.”

    MIT leaders have voiced their support for the plan, while also noting its benefits for the Institute as a whole.

    "SA+P already has a wonderful spirit and sense of identity; uniting so many elements of the School in a single building will amplify that strength and create a central resource for the whole MIT community," says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. "In its outward effects, the project is also a perfect fit for the people of SA+P: Who better to revive a grand old building and reknit the streetscape along Mass. Ave. than those who love and understand buildings and cities the most?"

    Robert B. Millard, chairman of the Corporation at MIT, also expressed his support for the project.

    “I have a long history with and an admiration for the School of Architecture and Planning, and I am delighted that as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Department of Architecture, we plan for a future that strengthens both SA+P and MIT,” Millard says.

    Among other things, a relocation to the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse could expand MIT’s classroom and design studio space, significantly increase its exhibition capacity for arts and design programming, provide new faculty offices, create a new center for the arts at MIT, and provide new areas for meetings and collaboration-based work. The building would also host public events and activities about cities, and include retail spaces.

    “The renovation of the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse is intended to generate new opportunities for research, teaching, and innovation at the Institute,” says Provost Martin A. Schmidt. “I look forward to seeing faculty and students, across many disciplines, use the new space to push their fields into the future.” 

    A featured part of the renovated building would be a new makerspace headed by Martin Culpepper, a professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and leader of the Institute’s Precision Compliant Systems Laboratory. That space would provide expanded design and fabrication facilities for the MIT community, and let Institute researchers collaborate — physically or virtually — with the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, which opened in 2017.  

    In recent years, SA+P has become increasingly involved in collaborations with other schools at MIT. These substantive new areas of collaboration range widely, including the increased incorporation of design principles in engineering — as well as the greater use of data in urban studies, and new connections between architecture, planning, climate science, and engineering. SA+P could host studio-based courses developed with other schools (including the School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management) in the renovated space. MIT also approved a new urban science major for undergraduates in 2018, and a design minor, approved in 2016, to fit any existing major.

    A new building enhancing interdisciplinary interactions would be “transformational,” Sarkis says.

    The possible move would also shift a major space for teaching and research over to the west side of Massachusetts Avenue for the first time, bringing the school into closer proximity with the residential population of the Institute campus.

    “We [would be] creating a new gateway for MIT,” says Sarkis, noting that the building has a central location in the overall map of the campus.

    The proposal to renovate the historic building includes retail space on the ground floor, and a theater. One of the proposed retail spaces would be a new outlet for the MIT Press, likely focusing on the topics of art, architecture, urbanism, and design.

    The possible move would also take advantage of a distinctive situation in which there is room for academic expansion within the existing built environment at MIT.

    Construction on the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse began in 1894, although some parts of the current structure date to 1911. The building was designed by the architectural firm Peabody and Stearns, and its brick tower and narrow windows have long drawn comparisons to a castle.

    The structure, which MIT owns, is one of the oldest buildings in the campus area — MIT did not move to Cambridge until 1916 — and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The City of Cambridge must approve modifications to the structure due to its historic status. MIT has been in discussion with Cambridge officials about the project.

    As one of MIT’s five schools, SA+P encompasses a variety of departments and programs, including the Department of Architecture, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the MIT Media Lab, the Center for Real Estate, the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, and the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism.

    MIT Media Lab personnel would remain in their current locations. The Media Lab is housed in a two-building complex, and its newest building, on the corner of Ames Street and Amherst Street, just opened in 2010. The project could allow SA+P to create shared resources with the Media Lab, including gallery and performance spaces, and project rooms, while providing a new public portal to the Media Lab.

    The proposed redevelopment of the structure would follow other MIT building projects that have been designed for interdisciplinary collaboration while containing flexible spaces. This includes the Stata Center, which houses an array of researchers in disciplines from computer science to linguistics, and the new MIT.nano building, slated for completion this year, which will host a wide range of nanotechnology research.

    “Everybody’s looking at it as an opportunity,” Sarkis says. “We can think about how we can do things better together, how we can create new opportunities for teaching and research, and technology and resources and workspaces — together we can re-imagine everything. We’re really looking forward to that.”

June 20, 2018

  • Across the Sahel, a semiarid region of western and north-central Africa extending from Senegal to Sudan, many small-scale farmers, market vendors, and families lack an affordable and effective solution for storing and preserving vegetables. As a result, harvested vegetables are at risk of spoiling before they can be sold or eaten.

    That means loss of income for farmers and vendors, reduced availability of nutritious foods for local communities, and an increase in the time spent traveling to purchase fresh produce. The problem is particularly acute in off-grid areas, and for anyone facing financial or technical barriers to refrigeration.

    Yet, as described in a recently released report “Evaporative Cooling Technologies for Improved Vegetable Storage in Mali” from MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) and MIT D-Lab, there are low-cost, low-tech solutions for communities in need of produce refrigeration that rely on an age-old method exploiting the air-cooling properties of water evaporation. Made from simple materials such as bricks or clay pots, burlap sack or straw, these devices have the potential to address many of the challenges that face rural households and farmers in need of improved post-harvest vegetable storage.

    The study was undertaken by a team of researchers led by Eric Verploegen of the D-Lab and Ousmane Sanogo and Takemore Chagomoka from the World Vegetable Center, which is engaged in ongoing work with horticulture cooperatives and farmers in Mali. To gain insight into evaporative cooling device use and preferences, the team conducted interviews in Mali with users of the cooling and storage systems and with stakeholders along the vegetable supply chain. They also deployed sensors to monitor product performance parameters. 

    A great idea in need of a spotlight

    Despite the potential for evaporative cooling technologies to fill a critical technological need, scant consumer information is available about the range of solutions available.

    “Evaporative cooling devices for improved vegetable storage have been around for centuries, and we want to provide the kind of information about these technologies that will help consumers decide which products are right for them given their local climate and specific needs,” says Verploegen, the evaluation lead. 

    The simple chambers cool vegetables through the evaporation of water, in the same way that the evaporation of perspiration cools the human body. When water (or perspiration) evaporates, it takes the heat with it. And in less humid climates like Mali, where it is hot and dry, technologies that take advantage of this cooling process show promise for effectively preserving vegetables.

    The team studied two different categories of vegetable cooling technologies: large-scale vegetable cooling chambers constructed from brick, straw, and sack suitable for farming cooperatives, and devices made from clay pots for individuals and small-scale farmers. Over time, they monitored changes in temperature and humidity inside the devices to understand when they were most effective.

    “As predicted,” says Verploegen, “the real-world performance of these technologies was stronger in the dry season. We knew this was true in a lab-testing environment, but we now have data that documents that a drop in temperature of greater than 8 degrees Celsius can be achieved in a real-world usage scenario.”

    The decrease of temperature, along with the increased humidity and protection from pests provided by the devices, resulted in significant increases in shelf life for commonly stored vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, cabbage, and hot peppers.

    “The large-scale vegetable cooling devices made of brick performed significantly better than those made out of straw or sacks, both from a technical performance perspective and also from an ease-of-use perspective,” notes Verploegen. “For the small-scale devices, we found fairly similar performance across differing designs, indicating that the design constraints are not very rigid; if the basic principles of evaporative cooling are applied, a reasonably effective device can be made using locally available materials. This is an exciting result. It means that to scale use of this process for keeping vegetables fresh, we are able to look at ways to disseminate information and designs rather than developing and distributing physical products.” 

    The research results indicate that evaporative cooling devices would provide great benefit to small-scale farmers, vendors selling vegetables in a market, and individual consumers, who due to financial or energy constraints, don’t have other options. However, evaporative cooling devices are not appropriate for all settings: they are best suited to communities where there is access to water and vegetable storage is needed during hot and dry weather. And, users must be committed to tending the devices. Sensor data used in the study revealed that users were more inclined to water the cooling devices in the dry season and reduce their usage of the devices as the rainy season started.

    Resources for development researchers and practitioners

    In addition to the evaluation report, Verploegen has developed two practitioner resources, the “Evaporative Cooling Decision Making Tool” (which is interactive) and the “Evaporative Cooling Best Practices Guide,” to support the determination of evaporative cooler suitability and facilitate the devices’ proper construction and use. The intended audience for these resources includes government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, civil society organizations, and businesses that could produce, distribute, and/or promote these technologies.

    Both resources are available online.

    As part of an ongoing project, MIT D-Lab and the World Vegetable Center are using the results of this research to test various approaches to increase dissemination of these technologies in the communities that can most benefit from them.

    “This study provided us with the evidence that convinced us to use only the efficient types of vegetable cooling technologies — the larger brick chambers,” says World Vegetable Center plant health scientist Wubetu Bihon Legesse. “And, the decision support tool helped us evaluate the suitability of evaporative cooling systems before installing them.”

    Launched at MIT in 2012, CITE is a pioneering program dedicated to developing methods for product evaluation in global development. Currently based at MIT D-Lab, CITE’s research is funded by the USAID U.S. Global Development Lab. CITE is led by Professor Dan Frey of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and MIT D-Lab, and additionally supported by MIT faculty and staff from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center, the Center for Transportation and Logistics, the School of Engineering, and the Sloan School of Management.