Earlier this month, MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) hosted a Health of the Planet Showcase. The event was the culmination of a four-year community initiative focused on what the engineering community at MIT can do to solve some of the biggest challenges facing the planet on a local and global scale. The event, structured like an informal poster session, was the first time administrative staff shared their own research with students, researchers and postdocs.
When Evelyn Wang took up her position as department head of mechanical engineering in July 2018, she and deputy department heads Pierre Lermusiaux and Rohit Karnik made the health of the planet the department’s top priority. Their goal was to bring students, faculty and staff together to develop solutions that address the many issues surrounding the health of the planet.
“Mechanical engineering is unique as a discipline in its diversity,” says Wang, the Ford professor of engineering. “We have researchers who are world-leading experts in desalination, marine engineering, energy storage and photovoltaics, to name a few. One of our driving motivations was to get these experts to collaborate and collaborate on new research projects related to the health of the planet.”
Wang also saw an opportunity to tap into the passions of the department’s students and staff, many of whom devote their extracurricular and personal time to environmental causes. She enlisted the help of a team of faculty and staff to launch the MechE Health of the Planet initiative.
Capitalizing on the diverse research fields in mechanical engineering, the initiative encouraged both big research ideas that could make an impact on a global scale, and smaller personal habits that could help on a smaller scale.
“We wanted to encourage everyone in our community to think about their daily routine and make small changes that really add up over time,” says Dorothy Hanna, program administrator at MIT and one of the staff leading the initiative.
The Health of the Planet team started small. They held an office supplies exchange day to encourage recycling and reuse of everyday office products. This idea has been expanded to include the introduction of “Lab Reuse Days”. Members of the Rohsenow Kendall Lab, as well as members of the research groups of Professor Gang Chen, Professor John Lienhard, and Professor Evelyn Wang collected additional materials for reuse. Researchers from other labs took Arduino kits, tubing, and electrical leads to use in their own projects.
While individuals have been encouraged to adopt small habits at home and at work to help the planet’s health, research teams have been encouraged to work together on larger-scale solutions.
Start-up funding for collaborative research
In early 2020, the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering launched a new collaborative seed research program based on funding from MathWorks, the computer software company that developed MATLAB. The first seed funding supported research projects on the health of the planet led by two or more mechanical engineering faculty members.
“One of MechE’s driving goals has been to foster collaborations and support interdisciplinary research on the grand challenges facing our world,” says Pierre Lermusiaux, Nam P. Suh Professor and Deputy Department Head for Operations. “The seed funding of MathWorks was a great opportunity to build on the diverse expertise and creativity of our researchers addressing issues affecting the health of the planet.”
Research projects supported by the seed funding ranged from lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles to high-performance household energy products for low- and middle-income countries. Each project is different in scope and application, drawing on the expertise of at least two different research groups at MIT.
In the last two years, the faculty presented these research projects in several joint seminars. They also participated in a full-day faculty research retreat focused on research into the health of the planet, which included presentations from local executives from Cambridge and Boston, as well as experts from other MIT departments and Harvard University.
These projects have helped break down barriers and improve collaboration between research groups focused on different areas. The third round of seed funding for collaborative research projects was recently announced and new projects will be selected in the coming weeks.
A community showcase
After returning to campus last fall, the Health of the Planet team began planning an event to bring the community together and celebrate the department’s research efforts. The Health of the Planet Showcase, held on April 4, featured 26 speakers from across MIT’s engineering community.
Projects included a seashore surveillance robot, solar hydrogen production using thermochemical cycles, and a portable atmospheric water extractor for dry climates. Among the speakers were Administrative Assistant Tony Pulsone, who outlined how honeybees navigate their environment, as well as Program Manager Theresa Werth and Program Administrator Dorothy Hanna, who discussed reducing bottled water consumption and practical strategies developed by staff to address functional barriers on campus to overcome, lectured .
The event concluded with the announcement of the Fay and Alfred D. Chandler Jr. research grant awarded to a MechE student-led effort to propose a new paradigm for improving the health of our planet. PhD student Charlene Xia was recognized for her work developing a real-time optofluidic system to monitor the soil microbiome.
“The soil microbiome regulates the biogeochemical cycling of macronutrients, micronutrients, and other elements vital for plant and animal growth,” Xia said. “Understanding and predicting the impacts of climate change on soil microbiomes and the ecosystem services they provide represent a major challenge and opportunity.
The Chandler Fellowship will continue in the 2022-23 academic year if another student-led project is selected. The department also hopes to make the Health of the Planet Showcase an annual gathering.
“The showcase was such a lively event,” Wang adds. “It has really energized the department and renewed our commitment to amplify community efforts and continue to advance research to help improve and protect the health of our planet.”