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MIT Better World

By Ken Shulman

Scientists work long hours, pursuing insights, hitting dead ends, and revising their roadmaps so they can move toward discovery. And science is powered by discoveries made by those whose trajectories were anything but clear at the outset—researchers willing and eager to follow a hunch or a passion without knowing where it might lead.

Today, significant support for this “discovery” research comes from private foundations. At MIT, researchers eager to explore fresh territory have received timely support in the form of gifts and grants from foundations that are increasingly investing in research potential. This kind of funding fills a crucial niche, placing necessary bets on a novel idea, a mid-career pivot, or a promising but unproven young researcher. As the below examples illustrate, the payoff is that science moves forward.

Fuel for a breakthrough

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero likes to encourage his students to take risks. “I ask them to imagine themselves as a scientific Indiana Jones,” says Jarillo-Herrero, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, referring to the hero of the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie franchise. “To think like explorers going into the jungle with a machete, with only a vague idea of where they might end up.”

Jarillo-Herrero’s own trek has led him to a discovery many think could usher in a new generation of superconductors with potential applications from energy transport to levitating trains to quantum computing. The discovery involves two sheets of graphene—a two-dimensional material consisting of a layer of graphite just one-atom thick—stacked at the so-called “magic angle.” That magic angle somehow creates a crystalline lattice that allows electrons to flow freely between the two stacked sheets.

“Electrons are negatively charged and normally repel each other,” says Jarillo- Herrero. “We don’t usually see this in solids because they have considerable kinetic energy. But in sheets of graphene, set at a certain angle, the kinetic energy drops, and another force, their repulsive interaction energy, becomes more prominent. Then crazy things can happen. We found a system that could be either a superconductor  or a different type of insulator, depending on how many electrons we put into that system.”

Along with his Indiana Jones spirit, the rising physics star credits critical support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for fueling his work; the foundation named him an investigator for its Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems Initiative in 2014. “I was looking at a funding cliff,” he says, noting that his group had a number of grants that were expiring in 2016 and 2017. “But these were also extraordinary years for our group, with so many things just coming into focus. I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to write grants at the same time. With the Moore funding, we were able to dedicate all our energies to our research and push the project through to completion.”

Jarillo-Herrero is quick to note that other funders, including the National Science Foundation, were also instrumental in his magic angle research. “The Moore funding was less restrictive,” he adds. “With it, we could change directions midway, reallocate resources to projects that had suddenly become interesting. The Moore Foundation encouraged and enabled us to take those necessary risks.”

Intellectual freedom

For a brief time after birth, a baby’s heart cells can repair and regenerate themselves following cardiac injury. As we continue to grow into adults, our hearts lose this capacity. Laurie Boyer wants to know how that happens and if there is a way to harness this process to fix hearts.

“The body has cells, like skin and blood cells, that constantly renew themselves,” says Boyer, a professor of biology and biological engineering at MIT. “But the developed heart lacks dedicated stem cells like these other tissues. Instead, cardiac muscle cells stop dividing early after birth, making it difficult to replace damaged cells in response to injury or disease. We hoped that if we could learn how to turn back the developmental clock, we could restore the heart’s capacity to replace lost cells.”

Boyer spent much of her career studying stem cells and the gene regulatory mechanisms that drive their development. After college, she worked at Integrated Genetics/Genzyme during the day and spent her nights volunteering in the lab of David Housman, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Scholar for Cancer Research at MIT. Housman helped steer Boyer to a PhD program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She joined the MIT biology faculty in 2007 and received tenure in 2014. She also joined the Department of Biological Engineering.

In 2017, Boyer submitted a proposal to  the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation. She’d already compiled an impressive academic record, helping to decipher the role of the epigenome in the cellular decisionmaking process. She had funding from leading institutions including the National Institutes of Health, but she also hoped to take on new challenges. “I was thinking about the future of our research,” she explains. “I wanted to pivot toward projects with translational potential, projects whose success requires new ideas and new developments in technology, but institutional funding doesn’t typically afford you the time to do that.”

She received a three-year grant that provided her the opportunity to make this pivot. “Foundation funding fueled an exciting new phase of discovery,” Boyer says.

“We are now charting the various signals that converge on the heart genome and tell it how to grow and function,” says Boyer, who has found a novel connection between a metabolic enzyme and cardiac maturation. “If we can understand the mechanisms that regulate these cell fate transitions, perhaps we can discover new therapies.”

Early career impact

MIT postdoc Gladys Chepkirui Ngetich can’t remember a time she didn’t love math and physics. An interest in thermofluids and turbomachinery took her to Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and then to Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar. She wrote her PhD thesis on jet engine coolants.

Ngetich came to the United States and MIT in 2020 as a Schmidt Science Fellow and joined the Space Enabled research group in the MIT Media Lab. The group works to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems by using designs inspired and enabled by space research. Ngetich, who was named an International Astronautical Federation “Emerging Space Leader” in 2021, is deeply committed to sustainable development goals, and she has shifted her research from jet engine coolants to environmentally friendly, wax-based propellants for use in rocket launches and in-space propulsion.

“The Schmidt Science Fellowship has given me a special chance to step out of my comfort zone and try a research area very different from my PhD,” says Ngetich, who hopes one day to contribute to Kenya’s space sector. “This interdisciplinary research has introduced me to a new way of approaching and solving research problems.”

Teachers and scholars

Several private foundations provide recognition and stability for young faculty in the sciences. During the Campaign for a Better World, MIT faculty won 64 Sloan Research Fellowships, nine Packard Fellowships, four Cottrell Scholar Awards, and eight Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards.

William Tisdale, a MacVicar Faculty Fellow who directs an experimental research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering, won his Dreyfus award in 2017.

“A big part of getting students excited is by showing them how excited you are,” says Tisdale, whose research focuses on advanced spectroscopy techniques and on next-generation semiconductor nanomaterials, including colloidal quantum dots and halide perovskites. His research could lead to major advances in fields as diverse as solar technology, medical imagery, and quantum computing. “I like thinking how these materials might benefit society. But I also love thinking about how things move around at the nanoscale.”

The teacher-scholar award, granted by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, provided welcome wiggle room for his growing research group. “I used the Dreyfus funding to support exploration of new ideas, many of which became federally funded projects,” says Tisdale. “The flexibility of the Dreyfus funding was key for that.”

Underrepresented in science

As an experimental nuclear and particle physicist, Associate Professor Lindley Winslow enjoys the challenge of measuring things that are extremely hard to measure. “The motivation comes from trying to discover the smallest building blocks and how they affect the universe we live in,” she says.

Much of Winslow’s work focuses on neutrinos—subatomic particles that pass by the billions through ordinary matter. In 2016, she and colleagues earned the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for work that detected neutrino oscillations for the first time. Today, she is continuing to try to answer some of the most tantalizing questions in contemporary physics: Why does the universe have more matter than antimatter? and What is dark matter made of?

Winslow credits good mentorship with helping her to advance her career, which is why in 2018 she established a physics research fellowship program for women with support from the Heising-Simons Foundation. The program includes a workshop on preparing research proposals. “Confidence in your ability to get grants is integral to wanting to stay in the field, and the numbers (of women physicists) are so low that we cannot afford to lose anyone,” she says.

Role models

Belinda Li thinks girls and underrepresented minority children need role models in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “There are way too many stereotypes about computer science and technology,” says Li, a second-year graduate student at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and a recipient of a Clare Boothe Luce Graduate Fellowship for Women. A program of the Henry Luce Foundation, the multiyear fellowship supports graduate women in STEM. “If they see someone who looks like them in those fields, they’re more likely to think they belong there.”

Li studies language models and natural language processing, an interest she developed after a year spent working in Facebook’s AI Integrity Team, which developed automated detectors for harmful content such as hate speech and misinformation. “I saw the extent to which we rely on language technologies to detect hate speech,” says Li, “and I don’t think current language models are always up to that task.”

Now, Li is going beyond hate speech detection to investigate whether machines actually understand the language they process. “The Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship allows me to pursue my research without having to worry about funding,” says Li. “It lends credibility to what I’m doing.”