|MIT graduate student Erez Lieberman-Aiden holds models of DNA fractal globules and is surrounded by designs symbolizing other research interests, ranging from evolutionary graph theory to the iShoe.
Four amazingly inventive students have won $30,000 each for innovations ranging from a DNA puzzle-solver to a low-cost prosthetic arm to an "iShoe" that checks your sense of balance.
The monetary payoff came today from the Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize Program, which has rewarded inventors with cash prizes since 1994. But the biggest payoffs from the winning inventions are still to come, in the form of new medical therapies, more efficient energy storage devices and lives more fully lived.
A century ago, the stereotypical inventor was a Thomas Edison type, slaving away in a lab, trying to blend 1 percent inspiration with 99 percent perspiration to come up with a stroke of genius. Nowadays, the stereotype is more likely a Borg-type hive mind, in which legions of anonymous engineers come up with innovation by design.
Erez Lieberman-Aiden, a 30-year-old student winner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks the truth is somewhere in the murky middle.
"I don't think there's this monolithic version of a crazy person in a garage, or a team working in a large corporation," he told me. "Different people have different styles. The way it tends to work for me is that I'll have some weird idea, and it's usually a bad idea or a deeply wrong idea, and I'll have an ensemble of crazy people in various fields."
Lieberman-Aiden's first step is to ask his crazy colleagues whether his weird idea has any chance of working: "On a very good day, they'll say, 'No, that totally won't work for the following reasons. ... but you could tweak it this way. Then I'll say, 'What about doing this?'
"This kind of weird iterative conversation usually amounts to nothing," he said. "But sometimes the conversation just keeps going."
And sometimes the conversation leads to something wonderful. Take the iShoe, for instance. Lieberman-Aiden and his crazy friends came up with a shoe insole with built-in sensors that can tell a doctor whether the person wearing the shoes has balance problems. The idea is to spot elderly patients who are at risk of falling, before they fall.
A variant of the iShoe - basically, a diagnostic platform that could be set up in a doctor's office - is currently going through clinical trials at Texas Medical Center in Houston, Lieberman-Aiden said..
DNA in 3-D
Then there's Hi-C, a system that analyzes the entire human genome to figure out how the DNA folds itself into a tiny ball. If you could stretch out the 3 billion base pairs DNA's double-helix molecule as a single strand, it would measure 6 feet (2 meters) in length. But all that information somehow fits inside every cell in your body.
Hi-C produces computerized maps that simulate the three-dimensional structure of kinked-up DNA molecules. "Hi-C is kind of like MRI, but it's for looking at how the genome is folding inside the nucleus," Lieberman-Aiden explained.
Understanding the 3-D puzzle of a cell's DNA could suggest new methods to turn individual genes on or off. That might lead to new ways to fix genetic diseases or even produce replacement tissue. "What is it that a stem cell does when it differentiates and becomes one type of cell rather than another?" Lieberman-Aiden asked. "It might be reconfiguring its genome in three dimensions."
Lieberman-Aiden was one of the first authors of a paper based on Hi-C analysis that was published last year in the journal Science. He and his colleagues found evidence that DNA molecules folded themselves into fractal globules - self-contained subassemblies that could theoretically be teased apart, studied and pushed back together. (Nynke van Berkum of the University of Massachusetts Medical School was the other first author. Senior authors were Eric Lander of the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute and Job Dekker of UMass Medical School.)
As he works toward his Ph.D. in applied mathematics and bioengineering, Lieberman-Aiden is also doing research in evolutionary graph theory. To learn more about that particular blend of topology and biology, as well as Lieberman-Aiden's other interests (including collaborative art), check out Erez.com.
Energy, arms and antibodies
The Lemelson-MIT Program may have gotten its start at MIT, but today the $30,000 student prizes are being awarded at three other universities as well. The stories behind the winners at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, at California Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign illustrate the breadth of innovation at the nation's academic institutions.
|Renssalaer's Javad Rafiee developed a method that uses graphene to store hydrogen at room temperature.
Renssalaer doctoral student Javad Rafiee was honored for developing a new method to store hydrogen at room temperature.
The technique makes use of engineered graphene, atom-thick sheets of carbon that can store enough hydrogen atoms to make up 14 percent of weight at room temperature. That far exceeds the storage capacity of any other known material.
Fuel storage is a key challenge that will have to be solved if hydrogen is to be used as an energy carrier for next-generation fuel-cell vehicles.
"We need a tank to put designed material inside, to be able to store and release hydrogen," the Iranian-born Rafiee said in a podcast about his research.
Illini Prosthetics Team
|The University of Illinois' Jonathan Naber clowns around with an early prototype of a prosthetic hand.
University of Illinois junior Jonathan Naber won for developing an affordable prosthetic arm to serve populations in less developed countries.
The Illini Prosthetics Team uses low-cost materials, including recycled materials, to create an arm that any person can assemble from simple instructions. Naber found that millions of amputees around the world have no access to prosthetic replacements.
"My dream is that one day every person around the world will have two functional arms, and I truly believe that my low-cost prosthetic arm is going to play a major role in that change," Naber said in the university's news release. He said he'll "take full advantage" of the $30,000 award.
Naber plans to travel to Guatemala this summer to field-test a prototype arm at a prosthetics clinic. During his senior year, he's aiming to patent the concept and put together a business plan for a production facility in Africa. The facility would supply prosthetic arms to amputee populations in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
|Caltech's Heather Agnew helped develop synthetic antibodies.
Caltech graduate student Heather Agnew was awarded a prize for her role in creating inexpensive, reliable and stable biochemical compounds that have the potential to replace the antibodies used in many medical diagnostic tests.
The antibody surrogates, also known as "protein capture agents," work as well as the more expensive antibodies. They also last for a year or more in powdered form without degrading, exhibiting a level of stability that antibodies can never achieve.
"It's been thrilling to see something that was in [our] heads turn into something with so many applications for biomedicine," Agnew told Scientific American. Once she's finished at Caltech, she plans to join a start-up called Integrated Diagnostics and help commercialize the technology.
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