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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Liskov, Harris to share new leadership position for faculty equity

Barbara Liskov, Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Wesley Harris, Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and currently head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, have been selected to share the office of Associate Provost for Faculty Equity, Provost L. Rafael Reif announced on Sept. 7.

As associate provosts for faculty equity and as members of Academic Council, Liskov and Harris will focus on faculty diversity and gender issues across the Institute, including the recruitment, retention, promotion and career development of minority and women faculty.

President Susan Hockfield and Reif created the new Office of the Associate Provost for Faculty Equity a year ago to build on the efforts of the Faculty Diversity Council and to provide a strengthened, central MIT focus for matters related to faculty diversity and equity.

In making the announcement, Reif invited the MIT community to join him in thanking and congratulating Liskov and Harris as they take on the new joint appointment.

"I am confident that the Institute will benefit greatly from their experience and leadership in these areas, and very much look forward to working with them in these new capacities," Reif said.

Liskov's appointment took effect July 1, 2007. Harris' appointment will take effect Feb. 16, when he is scheduled to step down as department head.

Reif carefully considered the goals of faculty equity as they relate both to women faculty and to minority faculty since the new senior leadership position was established a year ago, he said.

"While recognizing that issues related to gender and race share many of the same fundamental concerns, such as optimizing the recruitment and retention of the most talented faculty, I believe that MIT's engagement of these important issues at this point in time will be best served by the joint appointment of Professors Liskov and Harris," he said.

Both Liskov and Harris have been MIT faculty members for over 30 years, and each has served in leadership roles at the department and Institute levels.

Liskov has been co-chair of the Faculty Diversity Council, with Reif, for the past year, and she has had substantial experience working with the Gender Equity Committees of the five MIT schools. A member of the MIT faculty since 1972, she heads the Programming Methodology Group within the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and formerly served as associate head for computer science. Her research interests include programming languages, operating systems and distributed computing. Liskov is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Harris joined the MIT faculty in 1973. In addition to his duties as department head in aeronautics and astronautics, he directs the Lean Sustainment Initiative within the MIT Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development. His principal areas of research include unsteady aerodynamics, rotorcraft acoustics, structure and propagation of strong shock waves in gas mixtures, and sickle cell pathology. Harris and his wife, Sandra, also serve as housemasters at MIT's New House residence hall.

He formerly served as the director of MIT's Office of Minority Education and held an appointment as a Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT. Harris has also served as dean of engineering at the University of Connecticut, and as vice president and chief academic officer at the University of Tennessee Space Institute.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and former trustee of Princeton University, Harris has spent much of his academic career building joint university-industry-government research and development programs, Reif said.

In the announcement, Reif thanked Harris for the distinction and integrity of his leadership of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Dean of Engineering Subra Suresh will be announcing shortly a faculty search committee to identify potential candidates for department head of aeronautics and astronautics, Reif said.

iHouse opens its doors

New student residence focuses on global leadership.
The trajectory of innovation at MIT went outside the lab this year with the grand opening of the International House for Global Leadership, or iHouse, on Sept. 4.

The new residence, located within New House, an MIT dormitory at 471 Memorial Drive, is geared toward students committed to international development and global leadership.

Twenty-one students from countries including Peru, Rwanda, Tanzania, India and the U.S. will occupy iHouse this year, supporting one another's international interests and attending courses and talks on development.

Like many innovations at MIT, the new living-learning group began with an individual vision and was produced with the support and collaboration of Institute faculty, staff and alumni.

It all started when Raja Bobbili, now a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, had the idea to launch a living community with a global purpose back in 2005.

"I envisioned a house that would develop leaders, develop a strong community and create a positive impact in the world," Bobbili said.

"By learning in iHouse, students will understand other countries' problems and have the skills to act on those problems. By living there, they will support each other with the same kind of kinship ties that exist in other areas of MIT," he said.

Faculty, administrators and alumni got involved right away, with guidance and leadership from New House housemasters Sandra and Wesley Harris, professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

Bish Sanyal, Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning and chair of the faculty, focused on the learning component of the initiative, offering a seminar on international development to iHouse residents.

Sanyal, who also directs the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS), has encouraged SPURS fellows--mid-career professionals largely from developing countries--to work with iHouse students.

Diane Davis, professor of political sociology and head of the International Development Group (IDG) within urban studies and planning, will also support iHouse's learning side with courses and lectures.

Sally Susnowitz, director of the MIT Public Service Center, described iHouse as a new model of residential life, one the PSC has supported as part of the Institute-wide International Development Initiative.

"Living in the context of international issues and actively working on them in collaboration with people living down the hall is bound to expand conceptual, communication and leadership capacities," Susnowitz said.

MIT alumni also support iHouse. The 484 Phi Alpha Foundation, which funds public service projects at MIT and in the local East Cambridge neighhorhood, has donated $50,000 over two years to iHouse for staffing, speakers, stipends and grants.

Carl King (SB 1965), head of the 484 Foundation's Gift Committee, was inspired to support iHouse when he heard student presentations on such projects as turning corncobs into charcoal to make cheap fuel and transforming bicycles into ambulances for communities without access to health care, he said.

"These students were doing things that would create tremendous benefit in the developing world," King said. "The opportunity to assist iHouse was an ideal way for us to continue to focus on MIT and also spread our wings and go international."

Bobbili acknowledged that iHouse is still a work in progress, full of challenges and promise. But the journey to its grand opening has already provided a pleasant surprise, he said.

"We knew anything was possible. But we never expected we would have so much interest, both within and outside the community," he said, noting that iHouse received the highest number of applications of any cultural house. "Within the house, one just has to visit to see the amount of interest and passion there is already."

In keeping with the principles, even the dinner menu at iHouse will reflect global diversity.

"Pizza will not be standard anymore," Bobbili said. "We hope we can cross boundaries from Chinese, Indian and Thai food to Cambodian, Ethiopian or Mongolian. After all, iHouse is there to be innovative."

MIT works toward safer gene therapy

Biodegradable polymers replace viruses to deliver genes
In work that could lead to safe and effective techniques for gene therapy, MIT researchers have found a way to fine-tune the ability of biodegradable polymers to deliver genes.

Gene therapy, which involves inserting new genes into patients' cells to fight diseases like cancer, holds great promise but has yet to realize its full potential, in part because of safety concerns over using viruses to carry the genes.

The new MIT work, published this week in Advanced Materials, focuses on creating gene carriers from synthetic, non-viral materials. The team is led by Daniel Anderson, research associate in MIT's Center for Cancer Research.

"What we wanted to do is start with something that's very safe--a biocompatible, degradable polymer--and try to make it more effective, instead of starting with a virus and trying to make it safer," said Jordan Green, a graduate student in biological engineering and co-first author of the paper.

Gregory Zugates, a former graduate student in chemical engineering now at WMR Biomedical, Inc., is also a co-first author of the paper.

Gene therapy has been a field of intense research for nearly 20 years. More than 1,000 gene-therapy clinical trials have been conducted, but to date there are no FDA-approved gene therapies. Most trials use viruses as carriers, or vectors, to deliver genes.

However, there are risks associated with using viruses. As a result, many researchers have been working on developing non-viral methods to deliver therapeutic genes.

The MIT scientists focused on three poly(beta-amino esters), or chains of alternating amine and diacrylate groups, which had shown potential as gene carriers. They hoped to make the polymers even more efficient by modifying the very ends of the chains.

When mixed together, these polymers can spontaneously assemble with DNA to form nanoparticles. The polymer-DNA nanoparticle can act in some ways like an artificial virus and deliver functional DNA when injected into or near the targeted tissue.

The researchers developed methods to rapidly optimize and test new polymers for their ability to form DNA nanoparticles and deliver DNA. They then chemically modified the very ends of the degradable polymer chains, using a library of different small molecules.

"Just by changing a couple of atoms at the end of a long polymer, one can dramatically change its performance," said Anderson. "These minor alterations in polymer composition significantly increase the polymers' ability to deliver DNA, and these new materials are now the best non-viral DNA delivery systems we've tested."

The polymers have already been shown to be safe in mice, and the researchers hope to ultimately run clinical trials with their modified polymers, said Anderson.

Non-viral vectors could prove not only safer than viruses but also more effective in some cases. The polymers can carry a larger DNA payload than viruses, and they may avoid the immune system, which could allow multiple therapeutic applications if needed, said Green.

One promising line of research involves ovarian cancer, where the MIT researchers, in conjunction with Janet Sawicki at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, have demonstrated that these polymer-DNA nanoparticles can deliver DNA at high levels to ovarian tumors without harming healthy tissue.

Other MIT authors on the paper are Nathan Tedford, a former graduate student in biological engineering now at Epitome Biosystems; Linda Griffith, professor of biological engineering; Douglas Lauffenberger, head of biological engineering, and Institute Professor Robert Langer. Sawicki and Yu-Hung Huang of the Lankenau Institute are also co-authors.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.

The MIT Center for Cancer Research (CCR) was founded in 1974 and is one of eight National Cancer Institute-designated basic research centers. Its mission is to apply the tools of basic science and technology to determine how cancer is caused, progresses and responds to treatme

More Mit Genetic snews

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Team probes history of genes with new tool

The wheels of evolution turn on genetic innovation -- new genes with new functions appear, allowing organisms to grow and adapt in new ways. But deciphering the history of how and when various genes appeared, for any organism, has been a difficult and largely intractable task.

Now a team led by scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has broken new ground by developing a method, described in the September 6 advance online edition of Nature, that can reveal the ancestry of all genes across many different genomes. First applied to 17 species of fungi, the approach has unearthed some surprising clues about why new genes pop up in the first place and the biological nips and tucks that bolster their survival.

"Having the ability to trace the history of genes on a genomic scale opens the doors to a vast array of interesting and largely unexplored scientific questions," said senior author Aviv Regev, an assistant professor of biology at MIT and a core member of the Broad Institute. Although the principles laid out in the study pertain to fungi, they could have relevance to a variety of other species as well.

It has been recognized for decades that new genes first arise as carbon copies of existing genes. It is thought that this replication allows one of the gene copies to persist normally, while giving the other the freedom to acquire novel biological functions. Though the importance of this so-called gene duplication process is well appreciated -- it is the grist for the mill of evolutionary change -- the actual mechanics have remained murky, in part because scientists have lacked the tools to study it systematically.

Driven by the recent explosion of whole genome sequence data, the authors of the new study were able to assemble a natural history of more than 100,000 genes belonging to a group of fungi known as the Ascomycota. From this, the researchers gained a detailed view of gene duplication across the genomes of 17 different species of fungi, including the laboratory model Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as baker's yeast.

The basis for the work comes from a new method termed "SYNERGY", which first author Ilan Wapinski and his coworkers developed to help them reconstruct the ancestry of each fungal gene. By tracing a gene's lineage through various species, the method helps determine in which species the gene first arose, and if -- and in what species -- it became duplicated or even lost altogether. SYNERGY draws its strength from the use of multiple types of data, including the evolutionary or "phylogenetic" tree that depicts how species are related to each other, and the DNA sequences and relative positions of genes along the genome.

Perhaps most importantly, the method does not tackle the problem of gene origins in one fell swoop, as has typically been done, but rather breaks it into discrete, more manageable bits. Instead of treating all species at once, SYNERGY first focuses on a pair of the most recently evolved species -- those at the outer branches of the tree -- and works, two-by-two, toward the more ancestral species that comprise the roots.

From this analysis, Regev and her colleagues were able to identify a set of core principles that govern gene duplication in fungi. The findings begin to paint a picture of how new genes are groomed over hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

The study was supported by grants from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Genome study shines light on genetic link to height

First reproducible connection made between genes and height in humansIt became clear nearly a century ago that many genes likely influence how tall a person grows, though little progress, if any, has followed in defining the myriad genes. Now an international research team brings light to this age-old question by pinpointing a genetic variant associated with human height -- the first consistent genetic link to be reported.

The findings, published in the September 2 advance online edition of Nature Genetics, stem from a large-scale effort led by scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Children's Hospital Boston, the University of Oxford and Peninsula Medical School, Exeter.

In addition to being a textbook example of a complex trait, height is a common reason children are referred to medical specialists. Although short stature by itself typically does not signal cause for concern, delayed growth can sometimes reflect a serious underlying health condition. "By defining the genes that normally affect stature, we might someday be able to better reassure parents that their child's height is within the range predicted by DNA, rather than a consequence of disease," said co-senior author Joel Hirschhorn, an associate member of the Broad Institute also affiliated with Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School.

Using a new "genome-wide association" method, the research team searched the human genome for single-letter differences in the genetic code that appear more often in tall individuals compared to shorter individuals. By analyzing DNA from nearly 35,000 people, the researchers zeroed in on a difference in the HMGA2 gene -- a 'C' written in the DNA code instead of a 'T'. Inheriting the 'C'-containing copy of the gene often makes people taller: one copy can add about a half centimeter in height while two copies can add almost a full centimeter.

"This is the first convincing result that explains how DNA can affect normal variation in human height," said Hirschhorn. "Because height is a complex trait, involving a variety of genetic and non-genetic factors, it can teach us valuable lessons about the genetic framework of other complex traits -- such as diabetes, cancer and other common human diseases."

Nearly 90 percent of the variation in height among most human populations can be attributed to DNA. The remainder is due to environmental and lifestyle factors, such as nutrition. Although a few genes have been uncovered through studies of rare, single-gene stature disorders, most do not seem to be associated with height in the general population. Recent advances, including the completion of the HapMap project and the availability of large-scale research tools, enabled the scientists to take a systematic approach to understand how common genetic differences can impact a person's height

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