"Outside the Box: Crossing Disciplines” - MIT150 Documentary (2011)

Search transcript...

MONIZ: 40 years from now, we'll have three billion more people on the earth.

ZUBER: There's a huge growing demand for energy.

GRIMSON: Energy, health care, transportation.

JACKS: Cancer is a complex disease.

GLEASON: Tumor cells can be incredibly hard to kill.

GRIMSON: Absolutely huge challenges.

HOCKFIELD: Solving the most important problems.

GRIMSON: Imagine taking quantum dots and attaching biological structures to them.

ZUBER: The new batteries that have been basically built by viruses.

BULOVIC: The solar cell built on a piece of paper.

GLEASON: Smart bombs for cancer.

SARPESHKAR: The truly hard problems of science and engineering don't neatly fit within the box of any one discipline.

CANIZARES: It's not going to be easy. And it's going to take determination.

DOUGLAS: New science to be done. New technology to be developed. New policies. And new understanding of our history.

HOCKFIELD: Insatiable curiosity. The imperative to solve problems. Everything we do encourages people to think outside the box.

ZUBER: This is the coolest place in the world if you want to solve hard problems.

CANIZARES: Phobos is the inner most moon on Mars. And it's a really remarkable object. It's rather small.

ZUBER: Looks a little bit like a potato. It's cratered. It's irregular. The orbit of Phobos is decaying about 20 meters every 100 years.

CANIZARES: It's actually on a trajectory that will eventually spiral in and break up.

ZUBER: So something's taking energy out of the orbit of Phobos. The choices are that it's either the atmosphere of the planet, or it's the interior of the planet. It's a very puzzling story, and it's worth trying to reconstruct. I'm not an expert on atmospheric tides, but we had a tide expert in our department. He said, oh, it's really easy to calculate. I have a program that does it.

CANIZARES: Maria Zuber is one of the great leaders of space science. The people who are really successful at it, like Maria, have to be, of course, terrific scientists, really understand the scientific problems.

ZUBER: All of my degrees are in science, astronomy, astrophysics, geophysics. But when I came to MIT I never thought that I would be getting together with a climate scientists to do research. So we did the calculations and showed that there is some dissipation that occur from the atmosphere. And that was a key part of solving the problem.

GRIMSON: One of the characteristics, I think, of a really good interdisciplinary researcher is that they have multiple vocabularies. But this means that somebody who wants to succeed here has to be really committed, because, you know, you've spent decades building up your expertise and now you've got to spend some time making sure you understand somebody else's.

ZUBER: It's easy to think of interesting things to work on, but you don't always yourself have the expertise to do it. But it's almost always the case that somebody around here does. People love to solve difficult problems. And there's a real spirit of collaboration here.

HOCKFIELD: One of the things MIT has been strong at since our founding is helping people to cross what otherwise or in other places might be disciplinary boundaries. As I look at the great building that was built in 1916 it's really quite extraordinary.

KAISER: MIT started out since its founding in the middle of the 19th century in Boston actually, in the back bay. And it had pretty rapidly outgrown that area.

DOUGLAS: It had grown so large that it was bursting at the seams. And the decision was made that you really needed to have a unified campus.

KAISER: There was some land that became available in Cambridge. And we finally moved here in 1916. And so there was a great contest over the soul of MIT. What was its main purpose? And that was reflected in both the sites, but especially in the types of buildings, the types of campus, that would eventually be built.

DOUGLAS: They commissioned a study led by John Freeman.

KAISER: Freeman was an MIT graduate himself. He'd been a member of the class of 1876.

DOUGLAS: He did studies of universities all around the world. One of the problems was that departments developed kingdoms. They built their buildings, and even when the department really ought to go away, or be changed, or modified it lived on, and on, and on. And he thought, no, you want to have a building. And then the departments should shrink or expand as appropriate.

KAISER: I want to get massive functionality, efficiency, function, make this a factory of learning. We should have won massive building, what we now call the Infinite Corridor. We'd force people to be literally bumping into each other all the time, because that would be a real ferment of ideas.

HOCKFIELD: It's not possible to know when you've left the math department and entered the chemistry department. You can't tell when you leave chemistry and get into material science and engineering. And so we have lived on an architecture of collaboration at least since the new building was built in 1916.

MONIZ: 40 years from now we'll have three billion more people living in urban environments, in developing countries. That is a very, very large energy demand that needs to be met. A major part of the solution we are absolutely convinced is solar energy.

BULOVIC: One of the things that is fairly challenging for solar cells is their weight. If I can reduce their weight I might be able to make a roll of solar cells and just unroll it like a carpet. And maybe staple it to the roof without having to reinforce that roof.

GRIMSON: Vladimir is one of many great examples of the new generation of researcher whose very interdisciplinary. He melds together ideas from material science, electrical engineering, and ideas from policy all into one place.

MONIZ: He has found a way of depositing a photovoltaic directly on an ordinary piece of paper.

BULOVIC: All we need to do, and I'm going to simplify it by saying all we need to do, is simply put a solar cell on top of that paper. Karen Gleason's work beautifully allows us to do that.

GLEASON: Vladimir's heavily involved in the MIT Energy Initiative, particularly in the solar frontiers center. And he approached me when there was an opportunity to do a project together on solar cells. My lab works on chemical vapor deposition, in which you have vapors or gases that absorb on a surface that's cool.

BULOVIC: Nearly any paper can be used for making paper photovoltaic. Take it, cut it to maybe a size that can fit inside your chamber. Inside the chamber wonder happens. So the wonderful thing that happens in there is gases get injected. They find a paper and attach themselves to that surface, forming a tin film. The solar cells we make are extremely good, near the world record for generating the amount of power for the weight. The next challenge for us is boosting up those efficiencies by engineering the cell inside. I like to say, when I talk to my students, that our job is to be useful, useful in generating knowledge, useful in generating leaders.

MONIZ: MIT has a problem solving culture. When you talk about solving a problem out there in the real world you rapidly discover, quite shockingly to some academics, that God did not organize the world around a physics department, and a chemistry department, and a mechanical engineering department, but rather draws upon often all of these skills to come together. And that just means you do whatever it takes to get it done.

DOUGLAS: The origins of what we call interdisciplinary work today at MIT are rooted in the rad laboratory, or radiation laboratory. It was a facility that was plopped on the Institute even before World War II started to conduct top secret research on radar technology.

KAISER: So the initial idea was to get a bunch of physicists, and by a bunch they meant about a dozen or two, right? To get a couple smart people who knew about radio waves, putting them in one place, and make sure they had the equipment they needed. Sounds kind of simple, right? When the Rad Lab opened in December of 1940 it had 20 physicists, three security guards, two stockroom clerks, and a secretary, right? And about 2 and 1/2 years later it had a staff of 4,000.

DOUGLAS: We brought together British, American researchers. We brought together scientists and engineers. People didn't worry about the labels. They just worked together to solve the problems. And it was phenomenally productive.

HOCKFIELD: So it was really a cross disciplinary mix of truly extraordinary proportion. Following the war, there was interest at MIT in maintaining that magic mix. And the research lab for electronics was established as the follow on to the Rad Lab. And even today the research lab for electronics has faculty from many different departments who all come together around a set of problems.

SARPESHKAR: And because it has no real agenda, it's a collection of people, it tends to have a very creative atmosphere. And it's just naturally interdisciplinary. And interdisciplinary faculty gravitate to it.

DOUGLAS: We are very famous for interdisciplinary laboratories. Think of the media laboratory. Think of Cecil, the Picard Institute, the McGovern Institute, the Whitehead. We are as well known for our research centers as we are for our departments and for our students and faculty.

JACKS: Cancer is a complex disease. And one of the important goals for our work is to try to understand that complexity and, in a sense, simplify the problem.

HAMMOND: One of the unique things about tumor cells is that they can be incredibly hard to kill. They actually have pathways that help them avoid cell death. What we're trying to do with nanomaterials is find a way to encapsulate a number of the cancer drugs, deliver them not to the healthy cells, but just to the tumor cells.

JACKS: Paula Hammond is a material scientist who's trying to develop new materials for delivering drugs in more and more specific ways.

CANIZARES: When I first came to MIT I knew very few material scientists. And I wasn't even entirely sure what they did, to be honest with you, even though I was a physicist. Material science now is incredibly powerful. And Paula Hammond is a perfect example of how bringing the right engineer together with the cancer researchers can really be a game changer.

HAMMOND: When we're working with the nanoparticles we start with a particle in solution. And nanolayer by nanolayer we grow the film on the particle. These nanoparticles are very much like smart bombs for cancer, because you actually design them layer by layer to first target the cancer and get that nanoparticle in there. Once that bomb gets inside this tumor we begin to release the drugs which suppress the tumors ability to fight, and the drugs which kill the tumor. It requires this very huge and very broad set of disciplines to be able to do this.

JACKS: MIT's talent base is unmatched, I would, say across a range of disciplines in science, biology, chemistry, physics, and beyond, and in engineering. Most of our departments are ranked first or near the top across the country and indeed throughout the world.

HAMMOND: And at the Koch Institute I may have a graduate student whose thesis committee includes someone from cell biology side, someone from chemical engineering, or somebody who's an M.D.

GRIMSON: Students are among the best glue in the world. They often will make the connections between two faculty members that suddenly realize, there is a great opportunity here.

DOUGLAS: One of the really interesting requirements of all new building construction is to consider how it will be connected to the rest of the campus. And so there are many architects that are stunned to discover that their beautiful structures are going to have to have a hole punched through at the third floor to allow a connecting bridge, or card, or cantilevered from some other building.

GRIMSON: If you walk through stata you will find all these open lounges with whiteboards, with chairs, with the idea that that's a gathering place, that's a playroom. I have seen startup companies blossom out of an interaction between two people who didn't realize they were thinking about the same problem from different areas. And I've absolutely seen students find new ways to think about their problems on the basis of a play room conversation. The Koch Institute has-- I don't want to say copied, but has used the same idea of having on every floor these common areas to bring people together.

JACKS: The Koch Institute is, in fact, the first of its kind in the country. It's the first dedicated cancer research facility that has scientists and engineers together. And we have built lots of spaces within the building to encourage their interaction. You've basically got to get people out of their labs. If left to their own devices, a researcher at the bench will just spend all their time at their bench. You have to incentivize them and literally push them out of their labs. And that then, you know, produces the sparks of the new idea.

GRIMSON: That's an essential element in the intellectual churn of the place, that if you don't have that mixing component you don't solve the kinds of problems you want to solve.

HAMMOND: One of the things I've always loved MIT is its unique culture. It's always okay here to be completely and totally absorbed by your science. People love what they do so much. And they get so excited about it that they want to share it with everyone.

SARPESHKAR: You have to be fearless, because you're going where no one's gone before. And everybody thinks you're a crackpot, or maybe not. They don't. Maybe they think you're brilliant. But whatever it is, you're doing it because you feel like that's where you want to go.

HOCKFIELD: The great thrill of being here is having a conversation where someone gets excited about your idea and then adds to that idea, their idea. And there is just an acceleration of understanding.

ZUBER: I think it's easier to collaborate across disciplines here than it is anywhere else. People who want to solve hard problems, who want to push back the frontiers of ignorance, who want to create the future, they want to be here.