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Photo Credit: Jessica Scranton

Cambridge: One small city, so many great leaps forward. Nowadays, much of the thinking and tinkering takes place in Harvard and MIT labs on the Boston side of the river, but the epicenter remains in the first city of intellectual capital. From the north bank of the Charles springs earthshaking research that has upended the way we think and talk and move and eat and gaze at the stars.

You may have heard of MIT’s investigation of Earth-like planets, or of the four Harvard students who invented “sOccket” so kids in developing countries can generate electricity just by kicking a ball. Consider the MIT inventors who created a wallet that gets harder to open the lower you drain your bank account. Or Harvard’s new artificial hand, inspired by a cockroach. Today, the mashup of physical, engineering and life sciences—tagged “convergence”—is spurring breakthroughs on both campuses. Local wizards are exploring the mutability of DNA. The red-hot fields of optogenetics and epigenetics are poised to revamp our understanding of the stuff from which we’re made.

Typically, you learn what these researchers are up to only after their works are published in journals or heralded by the media. But here are some coming attractions about how our neighbors are changing the world.

 


Biopsies are the gold standard of cancer detection and treatment. However they’re invasive and can’t be done every few minutes to check if a treatment is working. Enter Michael Cima and his team at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, where university president Susan Hockfield says research potentially leading to “the greatest impact on civilization” is under way.

With a team including biomedical engineer Sangeeta Bhatia and chemical engineer Paula Hammond, Cima developed an implant smaller than a grain of rice that discharges a stream of information about the impact of therapy at the site of a tumor. “Everybody’s cancer is different, in pretty dramatic ways,” says Cima, 51, a professor of materials science and engineering, and a drug-delivery expert. “The choice of therapy is difficult.” His new device, based on nanotechnology, can determine with “exquisite measurement” what option works best. Given funding, the next tests will be on pets. (“Dogs get cancer, too,” Cima says.) The team hopes to have the tool in the hands of physicians soon.

 


New materials beget new technologies, which in turn prompt wonderful things like electric cars, and employment. But new materials don’t appear overnight, and it takes an average of 18 years before a material reaches the market. The hit-or-miss testing of a substance’s nuanced properties also impedes manufacturing at a time when the American cri de coeur is jobs, jobs and more jobs.

“We should do better,” says MIT’s Gerbrand Ceder. A professor of materials science and engineering, Ceder, 45, is the father of blazing fast lithium batteries. He now heads up the Materials Genome Project, a group whose modest aim is to reinvent U.S. manufacturing.

Ceder’s project will create a database identifying precise properties of hundreds of thousands of compounds (metals, ceramics, plastics, etc.), an index that could significantly reduce product development times and increase the success rate of data mining, leading to better products.

Under the old method, researchers experimented with boatloads of components to distinguish their beneficial properties (say, high energy) from their bad properties (high volatility). With Ceder’s calculations, all the properties of any old or new material will already be evident. Trial and error now requires months to test one material; the new program will screen as many as 100 in a day.

Their database “should be done within a year,” says Ceder, who believes his project will upstage the vaunted Human Genome Project “because it’s even closer to application.”

 


Predicting “the next Tim Russerts” and preventing stealth heart attacks is the goal of a team of physicians and scientists under the aegis of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Multiscale Hemodynamics Project is creating a tool to examine blood flow with an eye toward spotting cardiac blockage, which can cause sudden heart failure.

“Some people, like Tim Russert, experience a heart attack just out of nowhere,” says Charles Feldman, 75, a cardiovascular expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who teaches at Harvard and is one of the lead investigators. “They have no symptoms, or mild ones. The trick is to find these people and fix them.”

A computerized imaging device like a futuristic CAT scanner, Feldman’s noninvasive early warning system could look at your cardiac arteries in 3-D and predict real-life consequences, based on a “if this, then that” data bank. Currently, the only way to see “shear stress” is to insert a wire and ultrasound camera into the heart—a technique that Feldman also developed.

Michelle Borkin, 26, is a 3-D specialist in this new “convergence” field of medicine. “To be more accurate about where plaque is in patients, you can’t look at a live person,” she says. “In astronomy, you can’t go into outer space with a test tube. Both disciplines rely on simulation.” The success of the project, which could more easily and widely pinpoint people at risk, would be “a dream come true,” Borkin says.

Feldman thinks this dream will arrive in hospitals within five years.

 


Imagine you could slip inside someone else’s head to learn how they determine right or wrong, or what they like or dislike. Then imagine you could derail that train of thought and set it on a different track. Imagine no more.

MIT scientists in Rebecca Saxe’s “Saxelab”—officially the Social Cognitivie Neuroscience Laboratory—already had techniques to identify the source of judgments and intentions in the brain. Now they have the power, via magnetic interference, to alter those ideas. Saxe’s earlier studies show a particular section of the brain is highly active when a person thinks about someone’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. By disrupting activity there—with a magnetic zap applied through a device attached to the scalp—you can alter the process of judgment. Rather then intuition or personal bias, the judger must now rely more on facts and outcomes.

Dubbed the neuroscience of empathy, the specter of mind control may give pause. But for Saxe, 31, it’s a benign attitude adjustment, a tool that could potentially be used to intuit motivation, lessen negative behaviors and perhaps, ultimately, defuse global conflict.

Saxe’s lab is now working to see whether insights into how the brain reacts to cues from others can help unlock mysteries about autism. By studying the atypical, such as the reactions of blind children, she hopes to learn how facial expression affects judgments. By learning about the brain region that allows juries to reach verdicts—and “what oversimplifications and flaws there are in the process”—Saxe believes her work could eventually help the justice system assess guilt more accurately.

“You can change attitudes, if you figure out a strategy to understand how empathy breaks down,” Saxe says. “It’s a way to answer why is it so hard to know what someone wants or believes, and why is it so hard to change that.”

 


In December, two Harvard polymaths designed a new science, called “culturomics.” Over four years, Erez Lieberman Aiden, 30, and Jean-Baptiste Michel, 28, of the multidisciplinary Laboratory-at-Large in the engineering school, tracked the occurrence of 500 billion words in more than 5 million digitized books, published from 1500 to 2008. The two had first teamed up in 2004 on a language study, but “the data collection was miserable,” Lieberman Aiden says. “So we pitched Google.”

Their NGram (meaning word or short phrase) project is a linguistic barometer of civilization and how it’s evolving. It’s “the tip of the cultural iceberg,” he says.

The study illuminates censorship and trends. For example, actors tend to become famous at 30, writers at 40, politicians in their 50s. Suppression, too, can be tracked, as with artist Marc Chagall, whose name was in rapid ascent until the Nazi era, during which it appeared only once in German books.

Other trends this dynamic duo noticed: “Women” are exceeding “men”; sushi is conclusively on the U.S. menu. And “God,” they report, “is not dead but needs a new publicist.”

The research is “a great cache of bones from which to reconstruct the skeleton of a new science,” Lieberman Aiden says. Adds Michel, “And how much fun is it to work on that!”