José Maria Neves, president of Cape Verde, tours MIT
In a time of war, a new effort to help
New MIT-Denmark collaboration to expand opportunities for global impact
Gabriela Sá Pessoa on Brazilian politics, human rights and the Amazon, and AI
Architectural heritage like you haven’t seen it before
Q&A: How studying Portuguese helps to look at life through a different lens
President José Maria Neves of Cape Verde visited MIT on April 4, meeting with Associate Provost Richard Lester and other members of the campus community, and conducting a public event about e-governance in Africa that highlighted the ways technology has helped his country.
“Technology and information are a mechanism or means to establish links between [our] islands, and between Cape Verde and the diaspora,” Neves said at the public forum. He added that high-tech communications have been “an essential tool to organize the country, and also to accelerate the transformation of the country.” Using online tools more extensively, he noted, “leads to more inclusion, more transparency.”
The forum was part of the MIT x TAU series focusing on various aspects of sustainable development in Africa. The event was held before an audience in MIT’s Samberg Center as well as webcast live, and was sponsored by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS), the MIT-Africa Program, Global MIT, and the True Africa University (TAU), a global learning network.
The forum was moderated by Claude Grunitzky MBA ’12, a journalist and entrepreneur who runs the TRUE Africa media platform and founded TAU, and is a research affiliate at CIS.
In his remarks, Neves expressed a forward-looking vision for his country, an island nation about 400 miles west of Africa with a population of just over 550,000. It has been a representative democracy since the 1990s.
“There’s going to be a need to invest more in education, science, and innovation,” said Neves, who communicated most of his remarks through a translator. “If there is a will, if there is determination, the resources will be mobilized.”
In recent years, Cape Verde has developed a formal framework for its expansion of online governance capacity. Among other things, Neves noted that online government records now allow for the quick resolution of transactions which, in the past, might have taken up to a year to conduct, especially for Cape Verdeans who live overseas and rarely visit in person. Cape Verde has provided more internet access points for residents, and used online tools in election administration.
Neves’ visit to MIT was one of several events he was holding in the region; New England has a large diaspora community of Cape Verdean heritage.
“One of the strengths of Cabo Verde is having this diaspora spread throughout the world,” Neves said. “This community is extremely important to Cape Verde.” He also linked his country’s success in governance to the global connections it has maintained.
“Cape Verde is a free country, a democratic country, a place where the law works, and it’s democratized and there’s freedom,” Neves said. “All of that is because we have a country that’s very open to the world.”
We must help people understand the importance of bilingualism or multilingualism in Cape Verde. We are a lot richer because we have two languages.
Neves was born on the island of Santiago in Cape Verde and graduated from the School of Business Administration of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, Brazil. He served as prime minister of Cape Verde from 2001 through 2016, and has been its president, the head of state, since November 2021.
Before the public forum, Neves also held a smaller meeting with a group of MIT faculty, students, and staff, fielding questions about an array of issues.
“MIT is a reference [point] of higher education in Cape Verde, so there are many ways to collaborate,” Neves said, outlining a variety of possibilities for student exchange and educational cooperation.
Mutliple people in the group also asked Neves questions about language and communication in Cape Verde. The official language is Portugese, though much international activity has to be conducted in English; meanwhile, much of the public speaks Cape Verdean Creole.
As far as conducting more activity in Cape Verdean Creole, Neves said, “I do think that things are evolving gradually, and we are building consensus.” He added, “We must help people understand the importance of bilingualism or multilingualism in Cape Verde. We are a lot richer because we have two languages.”
And while this was the first visit Neves had made to the campus, he said he hoped for further engagement between MIT and his government, and joked that he himself could be an Institute student some day.
“Next time I will sign up for an MIT course,” Neves quipped at the end of the public forum.
Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, commencing in February 2022, is continuing to cause immense upheaval and destruction, and Ukrainians continue to fight to defend their nation-state. In the fall of 2022, MIT launched its MIT-Ukraine program, an effort to find ways to leverage the Institute’s expertise and resources to help a country devastated by war. This has meant confronting new challenges. MIT-Ukraine is part of MISTI, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, an international education program that usually sends students abroad on internships with host companies. But that is not feasible in Ukraine while the country is enveloped in war. Instead, the MIT-Ukraine program is implementing other types of projects to help Ukrainians, including working with those who have been displaced by the invasion, inside and outside the country.
To learn more, MIT News talked to Elizabeth Wood, professor of history at MIT, co-director of the MIT-Eurasia program within MISTI, and head of the MIT-Ukraine program, and to Svitlana Krasynska, program manager of MIT-Ukraine. We also solicited input from others involved in the program, including Andrii Zahorodnii and Dima Yanovsky, MIT undergraduates from Ukraine; Yevheniia Polishchuk, director of the Scholar Support Office in Ukraine and a professor at Kyiv National Economic University; and Svetlana Boriskina, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. This is an account of the program’s origins and goals.
Wood: At its core, the MIT-Ukraine program differs from the traditional MISTI program, which is designed to help students gain an appreciation of a different culture by working in it. In this case, we can’t send students to Ukraine. But we are trying to engage MIT faculty and students so that the students are working to meet the needs of the Ukrainian people. We are doing something that is aligned with purpose: solving real problems of a real society that’s in real crisis.
We have tremendous student interest and very good faculty interest. I had a student write me and say “Dear Professor Wood, I’d like to work on refugees in Ukraine.” I wrote back immediately to him. The next day we got an email from his father, who is an MIT alum, saying, “This is what I love about MIT, a professor responds to a student right away.” The gentlemen also said, “I have small family foundation. It may not seem like much, but we could give you $75,000 to support the MIT-Ukraine program.” Having a gift like that is really critical. With one email, we got a grant that sets up the finances we need to start.
Krasynska: There are three directions that we pursue in this program. One is to use existing coursework and labwork across the MIT campus to direct work toward Ukraine-focused projects. For example, there is a digital humanities course where we have six UROP students designing a platform for Ukrainian scholars all over the world. This is a project spearheaded by Ukraine’s Scholar Support Office at the Ministry of Education, which is trying to give the displaced scholars one place [online] where they can go to for support, collaboration, and information about professional opportunities. The MIT students are building this platform, including an interactive map of scientists’ locations and areas of expertise.
Another example is the water and sanitation course Susan Murcott is teaching, where a group of students is working on designing innovative and carbon-neutral water distribution systems. The students are researching the existing issues with water distribution in Ukraine. Not only have many buildings and much critical infrastructure been bombed and destroyed, but Ukraine also has outdated and overly centralized Soviet-built water distribution systems that are vulnerable to outages and attacks. So, the students are working with Ukrainian water experts to develop a new set of ideas on how to distribute water more efficiently.
The second program direction is focused on supporting Ukrainian scientists, both in Ukraine and in other countries. Many scientists have lost their labs in the war due to the shelling of university buildings and the destruction of critical infrastructure. Thousands of scientists have also lost funding and home institutions. We are trying to see how we can support some of these scientists by facilitating their collaboration with MIT researchers.
Finally, because this is a MISTI program, we have to think creatively about what meaningful and engaging internships might look like. First, we are developing opportunities for MIT students to work with Ukrainian organizations and companies virtually. Second, we are looking into creating internships that are Ukraine-focused but based in other countries, mainly in Europe, where there are significant Ukrainian refugee populations. We are currently working on placing students virtually, as well as in-person, in different countries, such as Spain, Finland, Switzerland, and Poland, for this upcoming summer.
So, those are our three key program directions: Using existing coursework and lab work, supporting science and research, and creating virtual and third-country internships.
Wood: It’s been really exciting working directly with the six students on the scholarship support project. They want to keep scientists connected to Ukraine so that brain drain doesn’t destroy the country once the war is over. If so many people flee and just settle in Warsaw or Krakow, then the country has lost, too.
Yevheniia Polishchuk is the lead within Ukraine’s Scholar Support Office on the project to build the database for displaced scientists.
Polishchuk: Colleagues and students from MIT are lending their support to the Scholar Support Office in Ukraine, collaborating to create a cutting-edge digital platform aimed at serving the Ukrainian science diaspora. This initiative came in response to the large number of scientists who were forced to flee Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. It is estimated that over 5,000 Ukrainian scholars were affected by this crisis, and many of them are eager to connect with their professional community and contribute to the postwar rebuilding of their homeland.
The platform will function as a hub for Ukrainian scholars, uniting individuals from different waves of migration and facilitating communication and collaboration on future projects. One of the key features of the platform will be a world map that highlights the locations of Ukrainian scientists, making it easier to find and connect with fellow professionals.
The teams from both organizations are meeting regularly to discuss the vision and characteristics of the platform. From the Scholar Support Office, Dr. Igor Lyman and I are providing critical input, while Professor Wood, Dr. Krasynska, and students from MIT are offering ideas on how the platform can be optimized to best serve the needs of the Ukrainian science diaspora.
The platform was presented at the Second Conference on the Ukraine Crisis, exploring the impact on the science sector and supporting initiatives, hosted by the International Science Council and ALLEA (All European Academies) in March, where participants shared feedback and expressed enthusiasm. Users are eagerly awaiting the official launch of the platform, which will be accompanied by training for administrators. This collaborative effort is a crucial step toward preserving the the human capital of Ukraine, an essential resource for the nation's future development.
I firmly believe that with the help of the international community, Ukrainian science can once again succeed. But it does need our help, and MIT can and should play a leading role in this effort.
Meanwhile, Svetlana Boriskina, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working with Ukrainian researchers to bolster their own research opportunities.
Boriskina: The Russian invasion of Ukraine was both long-expected and still unbelievable for me personally when it happened. The lives of people in my hometown Kharkiv — including my family — have been changed drastically, due to its close proximity to the Ukraine-Russia border. Kharkiv is also a major academic and research center of Ukraine, a home of many universities and research facilities whose operation has been disrupted or completely halted by the invasion. Employees of these institutions worked heroically to protect the equipment and personnel, to limit the damage done by Russian bombs, and to create the conditions for rebuilding after the war.
For the past year, I have [wanted] to help the Ukrainian research community survive, and to provide postwar educational and work opportunities for students and researchers who found refuge in the West, so they would choose to return and rebuild. First, it was important to spread the awareness of the great potential of Ukrainian academia and national research facilities, to make U.S. and EU researchers interested in pursuing collaborations. I hope my article “Optics in Ukraine,” published in Optics and Photonics News last year helped this goal.
Over the IAP period this winter, I worked with three great UROP students — Tatiana Vassiliev and Michael Kubera from MIT, and Juliana Mytko from Wellesley College — on building the science communication infrastructure to help connect MIT PIs and Ukrainian researchers around potential joint research projects. We recruited several MIT faculty members as proposal reviewers for the National Research Foundation of Ukraine, and have also been working on establishing contacts with institutions hosting Ukrainian students and researchers fleeing the war. These include the Institute of Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Nuclear Physics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Tel Aviv University in Israel. We plan research collaboration and student exchanges with these institutions, as well as helping Ukrainian research groups in Kharkiv to visit MIT. We are looking for additional fundraising opportunities to support these collaborations.
I firmly believe that with the help of the international community, Ukrainian science can once again succeed. But it does need our help, and MIT can and should play a leading role in this effort.
Other MIT-Ukraine projects are aimed at giving school-age students additional academic opportunities. Andrii Zahorodnii, a junior in brain and cognitive sciences, and Dima Yanovsky, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, launched their own MIT-Ukraine project, to work with advanced computer science students from Ukraine at an instructional camp in Europe this summer.
Zahorodnii: Dima and I are developing an innovative educational program for Ukraine’s most talented high schoolers, through a new partnership with MIT.
Back in Ukraine, there are brilliant kids that have the potential to become the next leaders and ensure that the future is bright for all of us. These young people are growing up during a time of war and hardship, but they possess a unique perspective that will be invaluable as the country moves forward. However, right now what they so desperately need is an opportunity to reach their potential.
We want to equip Ukrainian kids with the skills, knowledge, and confidence they need to rebuild Ukraine into a thriving, European nation. A nation that will prove to the world that it is never time to give up. That is our vision.
Yanovsky: Andrii was at MIT a year prior to me. When I visited campus right after being accepted, Andrii hosted me in Cambridge for a few days. So, naturally, all we talked about was how to help Ukraine. More specifically, trying to help kids of our generation. This was when the idea of the educational program was born.
Zahorodnii: I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given to study here, at MIT. Now that I am here, and especially during this hard time, I feel an overwhelming urge to do everything I can for the community that brought me up. When Dima came to MIT and shared my enthusiasm, we decided to get serious with our ideas.
Some MIT faculty had already been studying Ukraine before the invasion. Brent D. Ryan, an associate provost at MIT and associate professor of urban design and public policy, had been researching Ukraine’s large industrial cities. Some of his former Fulbright scholars are supporting a project to refurbish abandoned dormitories in Ukraine to create housing for internally displaced persons who have been forced to move within the country.
Krasynska: Last year Professor Brent Ryan hosted two Ukrainian fellows who were at MIT on Fulbright scholarships. These fellows have been involved with a fairly large nonprofit organization in Ukraine that identifies abandoned or underutilized buildings and then uses sustainable materials to refurbish them for the internally displaced families. The project, called Co-Haty, prides itself on involving local communities where these building projects are located, as well as the people who will be living in these refurbished buildings, in the reconstruction process. This helps foster a sense of community and ownership in the project for those benefiting from it. Two MIT graduate architecture students will be working with the Co-Haty project as full-time interns this coming summer. The internships will be partly remote, with students working virtually for part of the time and partly in person with travel to Zurich, where some of the Ukrainian partners are located. Among other things, they will work to to source the materials strategically, design the buildings, and develop many other aspects of this important program.
Wood: The Co-Haty program is thus doubly symbolic. It’s both repurposing material, so that’s environmentally sound, but it’s also moving away from the Soviet past and making Ukraine a fully modern, European country, which is so important to the Ukrainians right now.
Ultimately, Krasynska and Wood say, they hope faculty and students can continue developing scalable projects, with the assistance of MIT-Ukraine.
Krasynska: The situation is enormously overwhelming, when I think about the scale of destruction. But what I’ve learned is that we all contribute little things. When I was bringing in supplies [to Ukraine], I would deliver four suitcases of tourniquets and bandages, and think, “This is nothing.” But there are millions of people who can bring four suitcases of supplies, and if each can even save one life, that is worth everything. So, we need to think about how these projects add up. We might refurbish one building at first, and house three families, but if we put together a team, we can build a lot of homes and place a lot of families. It’s important to understand the collective nature of these small projects. That’s how you win the battle, each person adds their piece.
Wood: There are faculty who are working on projects, there are students working on projects, and the MIT-Ukraine program is trying to be a hub and a clearinghouse to help, without dominating anyone’s projects but letting things grow.
The MIT-Denmark program has received a grant of DKK 10.3 million (over US$1.5 million) from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to support its expansion. MIT-Denmark provides MIT students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in Danish companies, startups, and research institutions. The program aims to bolster innovation in key research and technology areas in Denmark and at MIT by increasing collaboration between the country and the Institute.
The program, which falls under the umbrella of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), has been thriving since it launched in 2018 in collaboration with the Confederation of Danish Industry. The program has facilitated internships for approximately 100 MIT students, with students interning in more than 50 Danish companies, startups, and institutions. The program's strong track record has made it increasingly popular with both students and companies.
Kathleen Thelen, professor of political science and faculty director of MIT-Denmark, explains that the program provides MIT students with valuable professional, educational, and cultural experience. "It is a unique opportunity for them to work in Denmark, a country ranked as one of the most innovative in the world, and grow their international network in their chosen field," she says.
The grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation will help MIT-Denmark increase its focus on internships in startups that are researching and developing solutions for sustainability, including sustainable agriculture and food systems, renewable energy, and carbon capture technologies, as well as startups within quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The program will do this with existing collaborators, such as the Confederation of Danish Industry, and new ones, such as the BioInnovation Institute (BII) Foundation and Odense Robotics Cluster.
The grant will also allow the MIT-Denmark program to increase the number of internships offered and connect students with innovation across research and industry, benefiting both students and host organizations. Students can contribute to innovative research in Denmark, gain valuable hands-on experience in cutting-edge projects and initiatives, and expand their global network. They will also have the opportunity to experience local culture, meet people from different backgrounds, and build relationships. The host companies, on the other hand, will utilize and learn from the students' knowledge of state-of-the-art technologies and strengthen their workforce for the duration of the internship.
MIT-Denmark is dedicated to MIT's mission of making an impact by addressing crucial global challenges in areas such as health care, climate and sustainability, and computing.
MIT-Denmark aligns with the Novo Nordisk Foundation's strategy for 2030, which aims to boost the life-science ecosystem in Denmark. The program also fits with the foundation's focus on educational initiatives within innovation to develop the next generation of translational students, researchers, entrepreneurs, and leaders.
"We want to drive and boost the innovation ecosystem in Denmark. A key aspect of this is to bring the best talents to the region," says Professor Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation. "MIT is one of the top universities in the world, and so with MISTI MIT-Denmark, we get access to a unique pool of students and the possibility of retaining some of these talents once the internship is completed. The program has established itself as a fertile ground on which industry and research institutions in Denmark can initiate and further build collaboration with MIT. We look forward to the next phase in the program's evolution."
MIT-Denmark is dedicated to MIT's mission of making an impact by addressing crucial global challenges in areas such as health care, climate and sustainability, and computing. These areas often match why students seek internship opportunities in Denmark, recognizing the country’s leadership in those sectors. Previous MIT-Denmark students have joined internships at health-care companies, such as Novo Nordisk, working on a design for drug delivery devices; worked at clean energy startups, such as Seaborg Technologies, which strives to make nuclear energy inexpensive and sustainable; and conducted quantum engineering research at the University of Copenhagen Niels Bohr Institute.
MIT-Denmark is an excellent example of how MISTI programs contribute to global impact by helping students learn how to address critical challenges in key areas. The program provides students unique opportunities to gain international experience, develop new skills, and broaden their knowledge while positively impacting the world. By building new connections through internships and research projects that address these important issues, MISTI programs like MIT-Denmark prepare students to be global citizens and leaders.
"We are so excited for the opportunity to keep growing the program and keep making an impact abroad. These internships are so much more than a summer work experience," says MIT-Denmark Managing Director Madeline Smith. "This grant will open new doors to a valuable international network, a new culture, and, maybe, a love for Denmark that could lead to a future global career."
MISTI is MIT's hub for global experiences, providing immersive international programs that bring MIT's one-of-a-kind learning model to life in countries around the world. MISTI empowers students to build cultural connections, make an impact in the world, and gain valuable perspectives that inform their education, career, and worldview.
Gabriela Sá Pessoa is a journalist passionate about the intersection of human rights and climate change. She came to MIT from The Washington Post, where she worked from her home country of Brazil as a news researcher reporting on the Amazon, human rights violations and environmental crimes. Prior to The Post, she held roles at two of the most influential media outlets in Brazil: Folha de S.Paulo, covering local and national politics, and UOL, where she was assigned to coronavirus coverage and later joined the investigative desk.
She was awarded the 2023 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship by the International Women’s Media Foundation, which supports its recipient with research opportunities at MIT and further training at The Boston Globe and The New York Times. She was based at the MIT Center for International Studies for the spring semester.
Recently, she sat down to talk about her work on the Amazon, recent changes in Brazilian politics, and her experience at MIT.
One focus of your reporting is human rights and environmental issues in the Amazon. As part of your fellowship, you contributed to a recent editorial in The Boston Globe on fighting deforestation in the region. Why is reporting on this topic important?
For many Brazilians, the Amazon is a remote and distant territory, and people living in other parts of the country aren't fully aware of all of its problems and all of its potential. This is similar to the United States – like many people here, they don't see how they could be related to the human rights violations and the destruction of the rainforest that are happening.
But we are all complicit in the destruction in some ways because the economic forces driving the deforestation of the rainforest all have a market, and these markets are everywhere, in Brazil and here in the US. I think it is part of journalism to show people in the US, Brazil, and elsewhere that we are part of the problem, and as part of the problem, we should be part of the solution by being aware of it, caring about it, and taking actions that are within our power.
In the US, for example, voters can influence policy like the current negotiations for financial support for fighting deforestation in the Amazon. And as consumers, we can be more aware – is the beef we are consuming related to deforestation? Is the timber on our construction sites coming from the Amazon?
Truth is, in Brazil, we have turned our backs to the Amazon for so long. It’s our duty to protect it for the sake of climate change. If we don't take care of it, there will be serious consequences to our local climate, our local communities, and for the whole world. It's a huge matter of human rights because our living depends on that, both locally and globally.
Before coming to MIT, you were at The Washington Post in São Paulo, where you contributed to reporting on the recent election. What changes do you expect to see with the new Lula administration?
To climate and environment, the first signs were positive. But the optimism did not last a semester, as politics is imposing itself. Lula is facing increasing difficulty building a majority in a conservative Congress, over which agribusiness holds tremendous power and influence. As we speak, environmental policy is under Congress's attack. A committee in the House has just passed a ruling drowning power from the environmental minister, Marina Silva, and from the recently created National Indigenous People Ministry, led by Sonia Guajajara. Both Marina and Sonia are global ecological and human rights champions, and I wonder what the impact would be if Congress ratifies these changes. It is still unclear how it would impact the efforts to fight deforestation.
In addition, there is also an internal dispute in the government between environmentalists and those in favor of mining and big infrastructure projects. Petrobras, the state-run oil company, is trying to get authorization to research and drill offshore oil reserves in the mouth of the Amazon River. The federal environmental protection agency did a conclusive report suspending the operation, saying it is critical and threatens the region's sensitive environment and indigenous communities. And, of course, it would be another source of greenhouse gas emissions.
That being said, it's not a denialist government. I should mention the quick response from the administration to the Yanomami genocide earlier this year. In January, an independent media organization named Sumaúma reported on the deaths of over five hundred indigenous children from the Yanomami community in the Amazon over the past four years. This was a huge shock in Brazil, and the administration responded immediately. They sent task forces to the region and are now expelling the illegal miners that were bringing diseases and were ultimately responsible for these humanitarian tragedies. To be clear - it is still a problem. It's not solved. But this is already a good example of positive action.
Fighting deforestation in the Amazon and the Cerrado, another biome critical to climate regulation in Brazil, will not be easy. Rebuilding the environmental policy will take time, and the agencies responsible for enforcement are understaffed. In addition, environmental crime has become more sophisticated, connecting with other major criminal organizations in the country. In April, for the first time, there was a reduction in deforestation in the Amazon after two consecutive months of higher numbers. These are still preliminary data, and it is still too early to confirm whether they signal a turning point and may indicate a tendency for deforestation to decrease. On the other hand, the Cerrado registered record deforestation in April.
There are problems everywhere in the economy and politics that Lula will have to face. In the first week of the new term, on January 8th, we saw an insurrection in Brasília, the country’s capital, from Bolsonaro voters who wouldn’t accept the election results. The events resembled what Americans saw in the Capitol Attacks in 2021. We also seem to have imported problems from the United States, like mass killings in schools. We never used to have them in Brazil, but we are seeing them now. I'm curious to see how the country will address those problems and if the US can also inspire solutions to that. That’s something I’m thinking about, being here – are there solutions here? What are they?
What have you learned so far from MIT and your fellowship?
It's hard to put everything into words! I'm mostly taking courses and attending lectures on pressing issues to humanity, like existential threats such as climate change, artificial intelligence, biosecurity, and more.
I’m learning about all these issues, but also, as a journalist, I think that I’m learning more about how I can incorporate the scientific approach into my work; for example, being more propositive. I am already a rigorous journalist, but I am thinking about how I can be more rigorous and more transparent about my methods. Being in the academic and scientific environment is inspiring that way.
I am also learning a lot about how to cover scientific topics and thinking about how technology can offer us solutions (and problems). I’m learning so much that I think I will need some time to digest and fully understand what this period means for me!
Artificial intelligence is changing the world radically. It's exciting to have the privilege of being here and seeing these discussions take place. After all, I have a future to report on.
You mentioned artificial intelligence. Would you like to weigh in on this subject and what you have been learning?
It has been a particularly good semester to be at MIT. Generative artificial intelligence, which became more popular after ChatGPT, has been a topic of intense discussion this semester, and I was able to attend many classes, seminars, and events about AI here, especially from a policy perspective.
Algorithms have influenced the economy, society, and public health for many years. It has had great outcomes but also injustice. Popular systems like ChatGPT have made this technology incredibly popular and accessible, even for those with no computer knowledge. This is scary and, at the same time, very exciting. Here, I learned that we need guardrails for artificial intelligence, just like other technologies. Think of the pharmaceutical or automobile industries, which have to meet safety criteria before putting a new product on the market. But with artificial intelligence, it's going to be different, supply chains are very complex and sometimes not very transparent, and the speed at which new resources develop is so fast that it challenges the policymaker’s ability to respond.
Artificial intelligence is changing the world radically. It's exciting to have the privilege of being here and seeing these discussions take place. After all, I have a future to report on. At least, I hope so!
What are you working on going forward?
After MIT I am going to New York where I'll be working with The New York Times in their internship program. I'm really excited about that because it will be a different pace from MIT. I am also doing research on carbon credit markets and hope to continue that project either in a reporting or academic environment.
Honestly, I feel inspired to keep studying. I would love to spend more time here at MIT. I would love to do a master's or join any program here. I’m going to work on coming back to academia because I think that I need to learn more from the academic environment. I hope that it's at MIT because honestly, it's the most exciting environment that I’ve ever been in, with all the people here from different fields and different backgrounds. I'm not a scientist, but it's inspiring to be with them, and if there's a way that I could contribute to their work in a way that they're contributing to my work, I'll be thrilled to spend more time here.
The shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa is a spectacular mosque in Balkh, Afghanistan. Also known as the “Green Mosque” due to the brilliant color of its tiled and painted dome, the intricately decorated building dates to the 16th century.
If it were more accessible, the Green Mosque would attract many visitors. But Balkh is located in northern Afghanistan, roughly 50 miles from the border with Uzbekistan, and few outsiders will ever reach it. Still, anyone can now get a vivid sense of the mosque thanks to MIT’s new “Ways of Seeing” project, an innovative form of historic preservation.
“Ways of Seeing” uses multiple modes of imagery to produce a rich visual record of four historic building sites in Afghanistan — including colorful 3D still images, virtual reality imagery that takes viewers around and in some cases inside the structures, and exquisite hand-drawn architectural renderings of the buildings. The project’s imagery will be made available for viewing through the MIT Libraries by the end of June, with open access for the public. A subset of curated project materials will also be available through Archnet, an open access resource on the built environment of Muslim societies, which is a collaboration between the Aga Khan Documentation Center of the MIT Libraries and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
“After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Associate Provost Richard Lester convened a set of MIT faculty in a working group to think of what we as a community of scholars could be doing that would be meaningful to people in Afghanistan at this point in time,” says Fotini Christia, an MIT political science professor who led the project. “‘Ways of Seeing’ is a project that I conceived after discussions with that group of colleagues and which is truly in the MIT tradition: It combines field data, technology, and art to protect heritage and serve the world.”
‘Ways of Seeing’ is a project that I conceived after discussions with that group of colleagues and which is truly in the MIT tradition: It combines field data, technology, and art to protect heritage and serve the world.
Christia, the Ford International Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, has worked extensively in Afghanistan conducting field research about civil society. She viewed this project as a unique opportunity to construct a detailed, accessible record of remarkable heritage sites — through sophisticated digital elements as well as finely wrought ink drawings.
“The idea is these drawings would inspire interest and pride in this heritage, a kind of amazement and motivation to preserve this for as long as humanly possible,” says Jelena Pejkovic MArch ’06, a practicing architect who made the large-scale renderings by hand over a period of months.
Pejkovic adds: “These drawings are extremely time-consuming, and for me this is part of the motivation. They ask you to slow down and pay attention. What can you take in from all this material that we have collected? How do you take time to look, to interpret, to understand what is in front of you?”
The project’s “digital transformation strategy” was led by Nikolaos Vlavianos, a PhD candidate in the Department of Architecture’s Design and Computation group. The group uses cutting-edge technologies and drones to make three-dimensional digital reconstructions of large-scale architectural sites and create immersive experiences in extended reality (XR). Vlavianos also conducts studies of the psychological and physiological responses of humans experiencing such spaces in XR and in person.
“I regard this project as an effort toward a broader architectural metaverse consisting of immersive experiences in XR of physical spaces around the world that are difficult or impossible to access due to political, social, and even cultural constraints,” says Vlavianos. “These spaces in the metaverse are information hubs promoting an embodied experiential approach of living, sensing, seeing, hearing, and touching.”
Nasser Rabbat, the Aga Khan Professor and director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT, also offered advice and guidance on the early stages of the project.
The project — formally titled “Ways of Seeing: Documenting Endangered Built Heritage in Afghanistan” — encompasses imaging of four quite varied historical sites in Afghanistan.
These are the Green Mosque in Balkh; the Parwan Stupa, a Buddhist dome south of Kabul; the tomb of Gawhar Saad, in Herat, in honor of the queen of the emperor of the Timurid, who was herself a highly influential figure in the 14th and 15th centuries; and the Minaret of Jam, a remarkable 200-foot tall tower dating to the 12th century, next to the Hari River in a distant spot in western Afghanistan.
The sites thus encompass multiple religions and a diversity of building types. Many are in remote locations within Afghanistan that cannot readily be accessed by visitors — including scholars.
“Ways of Seeing” is supported by a Mellon Faculty Grant from the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST), and by faculty funding from the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). It is co-presented with the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the MIT Department of Political Science, and SHASS.
Two students from Wellesley College participating in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), juniors Meng Lu and Muzi Fang, also worked on the project under the guidance of Vlavianos to create a video game for children involving the Gawhar Saad heritage site.
To generate the imagery, the MIT team worked with an Afghan digital production team that was on the ground in the country; they went to the four sites and took thousands of pictures, having been trained remotely by Vlavianos to perform a 3D scanning aerial operation. They were led by Shafic Gawhari, the managing director for Afghanistan at the Moby Group, an international media enterprise; others involved were Mohammad Jan Kamal, Nazifullah Benaam, Warekzai Ghayoor, Rahm Ali Mohebzada, Mohammad Harif Ghobar, and Abdul Musawer Anwari.
The journalists documented the sites by collecting 15,000 to 30,000 images, while Vlavianos computationally generated point clouds and mesh geometry with detailed texture mapping. The outcome of those models consisted of still images, immersive experiences in XR, and data for Pejkovic.
“‘Ways of Seeing’ proposes a hybrid model of remote data collection,” says Vlavianos, who in his time at MIT has also led similar projects at Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Simonos Petra monastery at Mount Athos, Greece. To produce similar imagery even more easily, he says, “The next step — which I am working on — is to utilize autonomous drones deployed simultaneously in various locations on the world for rapid production and advanced neural network algorithms to generate models from lower number of images.”
In the future, Vlavianos envisions documenting and reconstructing other sites around the world using crowdsourcing data, historical images, satellite imagery, or even by having local communities learn XR techniques.
Pejkovic produced her drawings based on the digital models assembled by Vlavianos, carefully using a traditional rendering technique in which she would first outline the measurements of each structure, at scale, and then gradually ink in the drawings to give the buildings texture. The inking technique she used is based on VERNADOC, a method of documenting vernacular architecture developed by the Finnish architect Markku Mattila.
“I wanted to rediscover the most traditional possible kind of documentation — measuring directly by hand, and drawing by hand,” says Pejkovic. She has been active in conservation of cultural heritage for over 10 years.
The first time Pejkovic ever saw this type of hand-drawn renderings in person, she recalls thinking, “This is not possible, a human being cannot make drawings like this.” However, she wryly adds, “You know the motto at MIT is ‘mens et manus,’ mind and hand.” And so she embarked on hand drawing these renderings herself, at a large scale — her image of the Minaret of Jam has been printed in a crisp 8-foot version by the MIT team.
“The ultimate intent of this project has been to make all these outputs, which are co-owned with the Afghans who carried out the data collection on the ground, available to Afghan refugees displaced around the world but also accessible to anyone keen to witness them,” Christia says. “The digital twins [representations] of these sites are also meant to work as repositories of information for any future preservation efforts. This model can be replicated and scaled for other heritage sites at risk from wars, environmental disaster, or cultural appropriation.”
Theo St. Francis is an MIT senior majoring in aeronautics and astronautics. He is graduating this June with a concentration in Portuguese, and has visited Brazil with the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives' Global Teaching Labs.
This year, St. Francis was the recipient of the Global Languages Margarita Ribas Groeger Distinguished Scholar award. In this Q&A, he describes how studying Portuguese fit into his undergraduate experience, and how it has broadened his world view.
Q: What attracted you to aeronautics?
A: I have always been enthralled by rocketry and aeronautics. I love thinking about what humanity can do to push its limits — originally watching space shuttle launches, and now with the era of SpaceX, launching human-crewed missions from the U.S. again, and other up-and-coming launch providers and development of a space economy. A lot of the technologies that underpin our modern world were brought about through development of space technology. An incredible amount of funding, especially in the '60s, was put toward developing technologies that we use today — everything from materials and memory foams and LEDs to telecommunications, GPS. Much of what we know about the Earth, we know through satellite imaging. It was through looking back on our Earth for the first time, photos like the famous Earthrise from Apollo 8, and what we learned from the Apollo moon landings — these really made us think about our place in the universe.
Through my study of Portuguese, I’ve been able to look at my own experiences through a different lens.
Q: The idea that you must travel beyond your own world, and view it from the outside, to gain perspective on it seems related to your interest in travel and studying Portuguese.
A: True, that’s a nice connection! Through my study of Portuguese, I’ve been able to look at my own experiences through a different lens. That is, everything from having different vocabulary with which to comprehend my experience, to thinking about my own cultural customs. There are so many different ways of interacting as a family, as a community, in the school environment — and viewing these from the perspective of another cultural is super valuable. There are a lot of things that are very similar, and a lot of things that are very different between Brazil and the U.S. Of course, Portuguese is not only spoken in Brazil, but that's the country that I've had the most intimate exposure to. My experiences in Brazil have impacted how I see political challenges, like issues related to the two countries’ histories of racial oppression, and how that plays out today in society and culture. Exploring these issues has been another really rich way to understand my place in the world.
Q: How did you first decide to study Portuguese?
A: I have always loved Brazilian music. I grew up with Sérgio Mendes and Stan Getz. I spent a number of years taking time away from school, recovering from a spinal cord injury, and I used to listen to the Sérgio Mendes album “Encanto” to ground me and help me cope. The music — even the album artwork — is very bright. It evokes the “País Tropical” (to quote Jorge Ben Jor). It brought a brightness and vibrancy to me at a time when I didn't have a lot of that in my life. Even though I couldn't understand any of the words, it was a very cheery influence. Then, in the fall of my sophomore year, I applied to Global Teaching Labs. Rosabelli [Coelho, managing director, MIT-Brazil] sent a group of six of us to São Paulo and São Carlos. That was January 2020, just before Covid. We taught engineering workshops to middle and high schoolers. It was an immersive and transformative experience. I spoke very little Portuguese at the time, though I had some rudimentary Spanish. Over the course of a month, I got to a place where I could give directions, mostly in Portuguese, so the students could understand well enough. For some of these students, it was their dream to pursue robotics at MIT. It just struck me that these kids were in some ways more deserving than me or many of my colleagues — just looking at how much they'd accomplished with much more limited resources. It was such a humbling experience. I came back thinking that I wanted to return to Brazil; and when I returned I wanted to speak Portuguese! So, I started taking classes.
Q: How did studying Portuguese fit into your undergraduate experience at MIT?
A: The process of language learning has been an incredibly refreshing time during my week. It uses a very different part of my brain and is a wonderful bit of variety when I’m taking other engineering classes. Nilma [Dominique, lecturer in Portuguese] has done a remarkable job of bringing in the historical and cultural contexts through the language study, and I think that has not only brought relevance to the language learning but has made for a very rich immersion in general. Through the classes I’ve also had exposure to Portuguese-speaking communities — both on and off campus, which I’ve really cherished. Also I’ve been exposed to music, film, and poetry — just whole new modes of expression — that have added incredible richness to my undergrad experience.
Q: How do you see this playing out in your future as you prepare to leave MIT?
A: I have no idea beyond the next year! I will be interning in Denver this summer, and I start my PhD in aerospace at Georgia Tech in January. But between those I will be returning to Brazil through MISTI. I will be working with a lab which is derivative of MIT’s D-Lab that does mechanical and development engineering for projects which relate to women's issues and women's rights. This particular project has to do with temperature control, heating and cooling, in the communities around São Paulo, where often the dwellings and electricity access are somewhat improvised, so the infrastructure is challenging. I recently heard an MIT professor with roots in Brazil that his belief was that Brazilians are more inventive and entrepreneurial than Americans, but they just have less infrastructure. I’m really looking forward to learning from my future colleagues and the communities we’ll be working with … as well as improving my Portuguese.
Q: If someone wanted recommendations from you, in terms of Brazilian music or film, what would you suggest?
A: I have recently gotten into an album called “AmarElo,” by Emicida. There’s a couple of films on Netflix of his live concerts in São Paulo. His music is very powerful and reflects an incredible confluence of influences from Brazilian rap culture. He speaks to many cross currents, especially on race, in Brazil today. Also, I’d recommend the Netflix series “Coisa Mais Linda” (Girls from Ipanema). It takes place in 1959 in Rio de Janeiro — the time and place where bossa nova emerged. It deals with gender roles, especially for women, in that time in Brazil. And it's a gorgeous series.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: My experiences in Brazil really showed me the responsibility I have to bring the things that I've learned at MIT, and pay those gifts forward to the world. There was something our host in South Africa told our students this January for GTL [Global Teaching Labs] that really stuck with me. He said, “This is an incredible opportunity to have MIT students here to learn from. But also remember that these kids are no different than you. They just were fortunate enough to be born in a first-world country and have resources available to them. They've done the same thing you've done with what they were given. They just started from a different place.” And I thought that was a really potent and appropriate way to start off the collaboration with these high schoolers. I think it's our responsibility to recognize that privilege and to think about how we can make good on the gifts that we've been given. My studies in Portuguese, and the opportunities I’ve received to interact with people in Brazil, have really given me context for how to do that going forward. I'm incredibly grateful for the support of Nilma, Rosa, Global Languages, and MISTI in these pursuits.