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2021 MITx Prize winners build community on campus and across the globe



On May 14, six MIT instructors were honored with the 2021 MITx Prize for Teaching and Learning in MOOCs. The prize, established in 2016, honors excellence in creating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for MITx on edX. Anyone in the MIT community can submit nominations, including MITx MOOC creators, and awardees are selected by the MITx Faculty Advisory Committee.

The award was given to two courses this year, honoring faculty and instructors from four disciplines. Jonathan Gruber, Ford Professor of Economics, was honored for his 14.01x (AP Microeconomics) course, which uses MIT materials geared toward high school learners to help them prepare for the College Board exam. The other course recognized, 15.480x (The Science and Business of Biotechnology), was created by professors Andrew Lo of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Harvey Lodish of the Department of Biology, along with graduate students Zied Ben Chaouch of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and Kate Koch of the Department of Biology, as well as Shomesh Chaudhuri ’14, PhD ’18, an EECS graduate. 

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2020 MITx Prize for Teaching and Learning in MOOCs

The MITx Faculty Advisory Committee assesses prize nominees on four criteria: effective and engaging teaching methods, learner-focused innovation, residential impact and reuse, and global reach and impact. It is that last criterion that has drawn the most focus over the past year; in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, demand for the established, high-quality resources offered by MIT Open Learning has been higher than ever.

“Now more than ever, by opening MIT teaching and learning to the world, our MITx courses are making a global impact,” says Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal. “The courses honored with this award are exemplars of the best of MITx, and of MIT. They reach quite different audiences; high school students in one case, current and future leaders in biotechnology in the other. In both cases, they are doing so in ways that are sparking new curiosity and interest and opening new opportunities for their learners worldwide.”

Gruber’s Microeconomics course is a perfect example of a learning resource that has grown beyond its original purpose to reach a diverse international audience. Gruber first designed the course in 2017 to fill the void of preparatory materials available to U.S. students planning to take the AP Microeconomics exam; he notes that few high schools offer any kind of support or formal training for the test. The MOOC is structured around the exam curriculum, to serve either as standalone training or as a supplement to instructor-led courses. But perhaps in part because of its wide-ranging, pop-culture savvy appeal (Gruber uses LeBron James’ basketball career, Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account, and the pros and cons of attending university as just a few of his real-world economics examples) the course has found a truly global audience with learners from 180 countries.

Gruber has also used the course to develop and implement a very practical economic policy of his own. He has done away with assigning a required — and costly — textbook for his students in his residential MIT version of the course, instead assigning materials from the MOOC and other free, open source MIT learning materials as a supplement to class lectures and notes. David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics, in support of the course’s nomination, commended the “labor of love” that is Gruber’s course, and how with each new iteration of the MOOC, his colleague builds bridges for high school students, “[opening] pathways that were previously cloudy or just invisible.” Over time, says Autor, the course will “foster diversity and inclusion by seeding opportunity where it was absent.” 

The Science and Business of Biotechnology course team was no less ambitious in creating their multidisciplinary exploration of the industry, setting up the course based on the comprehensive, research-led approach they’d like to see companies adopt. Like Gruber, course leaders Andrew Lo and Harvey Lodish have personal connections to their subject: Lo was moved to make change in the sector after experiencing disillusionment with biotech during loved ones’ battles with cancer. Lodish has witnessed the enormous impact of the biotech industry on both personal and professional levels: years after he co-founded Genzyme, his daughter gave birth to a son who depends on one of the company’s medicines for treatment of a chronic health condition.

The team’s dedication and well-balanced approach to a multifaceted industry has been a smashing success. Calling Lo and Lodish “superstars” in his letter of support, Institute Professor Robert Langer lauded the course’s comprehensive approach to the subject matter, finding it essential for those who would seek to make a real impact on the biotech industry. Heidi Pickett, assistant dean for the MIT Sloan Master of Finance Program, also praised the combination of subject areas explored throughout the course, citing its ability to redress weaknesses in individual learners’ skill sets; those coming from a finance background, for example, would benefit from a deeper engagement with the science of biotech, while still gaining knowledge in their primary field. She also spoke to the course’s wide appeal: “Considering the importance of topics discussed presented in 15.480x, it is no wonder the course attracted learners from around the world bringing different backgrounds and perspectives,” she says, adding that lively exchanges between users on the course’s discussion boards greatly enhanced the learning experience.

After a year when so many learners struggled to adapt to a sudden shift to remote education, MITx Director Dana Doyle finds ample reason to celebrate the power of intentional online teaching and learning. “In a time when people everywhere have felt both increasingly isolated and increasingly connected by the experience of the pandemic, it’s so heartening to witness how these courses have brought learners together to dive into important, complex global issues.”

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Explainer: How Synthetic Biology is Redesigning Life



In the modern digital world, social media reach is power.

The people with the most followers on Twitter, for example, have a massive platform to spread their messages, while those with large, engaged followings on Instagram are an advertiser’s dream sponsor partner.

Social media can also be an equalizer of power. It’s true that many celebrities boast large followings across platforms, but social media has also enabled previously unknown personalities to turn YouTube or TikTok fame into veritable star power and influence.

Who has the biggest reach across the entire social media universe? Instead of looking at who has the most followers on Instagram, Twitter, or other networks, we ranked the most-followed personalities across all major platforms combined.

Who Has the Most Overall Followers on Social Media?

We parsed through hundreds of the most-followed accounts on multiple platforms to narrow down the top influencers across social media as of April 2021.

Sources include trackers of the most followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok, verified directly on site and with social media tracker Socialblade.

The results? A top 50 list of social media influencers consisting of athletes, musicians, politicians, and other personalities.

Rank Name Category Total Followers Biggest Platform
#1 Cristiano Ronaldo Sports 517M Instagram
#2 Justin Bieber Music 455M Instagram
#3 Ariana Grande Music 429M Instagram
#4 Selena Gomez Music 425M Instagram
#5 Taylor Swift Music 361M Instagram
#6 Dwayne Johnson Film & TV 342M Instagram
#7 Katy Perry Music 338M Instagram
#8 Kylie Jenner Other 333M Instagram
#9 Rihanna Music 332M Twitter
#10 Kim Kardashian Other 319M Instagram
#11 Lionel Messi Sports 298M Instagram
#12 Neymar Sports 283M Instagram
#13 Shakira Music 282M Facebook
#14 Jennifer Lopez Music 277M Instagram
#15 Beyoncé Music 267M Instagram
#16 Ellen DeGeneres Film & TV 260M Instagram
#17 Miley Cyrus Music 235M Instagram
#18 Nicki Minaj Music 232M Instagram
#19 Barack Obama Politics 221M Twitter
#20 Will Smith Film & TV 217M Facebook
#21 Kendall Jenner Other 212M Instagram
#22 Demi Lovato Music 211M Instagram
#23 Lady Gaga Music 210M Twitter
#24 Kevin Hart Film & TV 201M Instagram
#25 Virat Kohli Sports 195M Instagram
#26 Eminem Music 194M Facebook
#27 Drake Music 192M Instagram
#28 Khloé Kardashian Other 191M Instagram
#29 Bruno Mars Music 191M Facebook
#30 Chris Brown Music 187M Instagram
#31 Vin Diesel Film & TV 177M Facebook
#32 Narendra Modi Politics 175M Twitter
#33 Justin Timberlake Music 175M Twitter
#34 Billie Eilish Music 171M Instagram
#35 Charli D’Amelio Other 169M TikTok
#36 Kourtney Kardashian Other 165M Instagram
#37 Cardi B Music 160M Instagram
#38 LeBron James Sports 157M Instagram
#39 Adele Music 156M Facebook
#40 Priyanka Chopra Film & TV 144M Instagram
#41 Germán Garmendia Gaming 143M Youtube
#42 Wiz Khalifa Music 142M Facebook
#43 Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg Gaming 141M Youtube
#44 Akshay Kumar Film & TV 140M Instagram
#45 Snoop Dogg Music 138M Instagram
#46 Deepika Padukone Film & TV 138M Instagram
#47 Britney Spears Music 137M Twitter
#48 Shawn Mendes Music 136M Instagram
#49 Whindersson Nunes Batista Other 135M Instagram
#50 Salman Khan Film & TV 134M Facebook

Unsurprisingly, celebrities reign supreme on social media. As of April 2021, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was the most-followed person on social media with more than 500 million total followers.

But there are other illuminating highlights, such as the global reach of music. With large and diverse fanbases, artists account for half of the top 50 largest social media followings.

Also notable is the power of Instagram, which was the biggest platform for 67% of the top 50 social media influencers. This includes hard-to-categorize celebrities like the Kardashians and Jenners, which turned reality TV and social media fame into business and media empires.

Download the Generational Power Report (.pdf)

The Generational Power Index

The Most Followers on Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube

However, it’s not only celebrities that dominate social media.

Personalities that started on one social media platform and developed massive followings include TikTok’s most-followed star Charli D’Amelio and YouTubers Germán Garmendia, Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, and Whindersson Nunes Batista.

Politicians were also prominent influencers. Former U.S. President Barack Obama has the most followers on Twitter, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has more than 175 million followers across social media.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump would have also made the list with more than 140 million followers across social media before being banned from multiple platforms on January 8, 2021.

A Generational Look at Social Media Influence

While older generations have had to adapt to social media platforms, younger generations have grown up alongside them. As a measure of cultural importance, this gives Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z a rare leg-up on older generations.

Millennials, in particular, hold the lion’s share of spots in this top 50 list:

Generation # of Influencers in Generation Top Influencer in Generation
Gen Z 4 Kylie Jenner
Millennial 33 Cristiano Ronaldo
Gen X 10 Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson
Baby Boomer 3 Ellen DeGeneres

The average age of the top 50 influencers was just over 37.

In our Generational Power Index (GPI), which measures the share of power generations hold in various categories, digital platforms were a key area where Millennials derived their power and influence. Overall, Baby Boomers—and to a lesser extent, Gen X—still run the show in most areas of society today.

Social Media Influence, Going Forward

As most fans and advertisers know, not all social media accounts and followings are homogenous.

Many influencers with relatively small followings have more consistent engagement, and are often able to demand high advertising fees as a result.

Conversely, most social media platforms are reckoning with a severe glut of fake accounts or bots that inflate follower counts, impacting everything from celebrities and politicians to personalities and businesses.

Regardless, social media has become a mainstay platform (or soapbox) for today’s cultural influencers. Billions of people turn to social media for news, engagement, recommendations, and entertainment, and new platforms are always on the rise.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the data used for this story incorrectly counted Facebook likes instead of followers for some personalities. The content has since been corrected and updated.”

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Mechanical engineer receives NSF CAREER award to pioneer robot-assisted rehabilitation



Project outcomes have potential to transform treatment of walking disabilities across wide range of conditions

Zach Lerner, an assistant professor in Northern Arizona University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, was recently awarded a $538,563 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build on his research into restoring neuromuscular function and augmenting human ability through the design, control and testing of robotic exoskeletons.

“There is a critical need for treatments that address the root causes of walking disability, including impaired strength, muscle control and coordination. This project seeks to advance the scientific study of walking rehabilitation and pioneer a novel wearable rehabilitation strategy,” Lerner said. “The outcomes of this project have the potential to transform the treatment of walking disabilities across a wide range of conditions.”

Grant is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty

The award was made to Lerner by the NSF through its Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards “in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”

The funding will support Lerner’s goal to optimize long-term gait rehabilitation through hybrid ankle exoskeleton training, working with a team that includes both graduate and undergraduate students in his Biomechatronics Lab on NAU’s Flagstaff campus.

While wearable robotic exoskeletons hold potential for individuals with walking disabilities, prior research has focused on immediate improvements in walking performance from powered assistance. This project seeks to understand whether alternating assistance and resistance with a wearable ankle exoskeleton will elicit greater improvements in walking than either approach alone.

“This funding will support us in establishing fundamental knowledge on the interplay between disease severity and wearable assistance and resistance,” Lerner said. “The strategies we develop will be generalizable, enabling other investigators to apply this framework to different types of control algorithms, devices, joints and patient populations.”

Project to integrate research and education

The five-year project will also enable Lerner and his team to offer opportunities for educational and outreach activities to engage elementary and middle school students as well as college students. Lerner will develop a new Curriculum in Assistive Robotics and Engineering (CARE), incorporating advanced robotics course modules, design-for-disability capstone projects and K-12 experiences.

“Through this new curriculum,” Lerner said, “we aim to motivate engineering students to address the challenges experienced by individuals with disabilities and improve engineering education on human-centered design. We anticipate that the students involved in CARE will gain an improved understanding of the needs of people with physical disabilities, which will translate into effective engineering solutions, and result in more motivated, insightful and impactful engineering students and professionals.”


About Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University is a higher-research institution providing exceptional educational opportunities in Arizona and beyond. NAU delivers a student-centered experience to its nearly 30,000 students in Flagstaff, statewide and online through rigorous academic programs in a supportive, inclusive and diverse environment. Dedicated, world-renowned faculty help ensure students achieve academic excellence, experience personal growth, have meaningful research opportunities and are positioned for personal and professional success.

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School of Engineering second quarter 2021 awards



Members of the MIT engineering faculty receive many awards in recognition of their scholarship, service, and overall excellence. The School of Engineering periodically recognizes their achievements by highlighting the honors, prizes, and medals won by faculty working in our academic departments, labs, and centers.

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Each of These Microscopic Glass Beads Stores an Image Encoded on a Strand of DNA



Increasingly, civilization’s information is stored digitally, and that storage is abundant and growing. We don’t bother deleting those seven high-definition videos of the ceiling or 20 blurry photos of a table corner taken by our kid. There’s plenty of room on a smartphone or in the cloud, and we count on both increasing every year.

As we fluidly copy information from device to device, this situation seems durable. But that’s not necessarily true.

The amount of data we create is increasing rapidly. And if we (apocalyptically) lost the ability to produce digital storage devices—hard drives or magnetic tape, for example—our civilization’s collective digital record would begin to sprout holes within years. In decades, it’d become all but unreadable. Digital storage isn’t like books or stone tablets. It has a shorter expiration date. And, although we take storage for granted, it’s still expensive and energy hungry.

Which is why researchers are looking for new ways to archive information. And DNA, life’s very own “hard drive,” may be one solution. DNA offers incredibly dense data storage, and under the right conditions, it can keep information intact for millennia.

In recent years, scientists have advanced DNA data storage. They’ve shown how we can encode individual books, photographs, and even GIFs in DNA and then retrieve them. But there hasn’t been a scalable way to organize and retrieve large collections of DNA files. Until now, that is.

In a new Nature Materials paper, a team from MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute describe a DNA-based storage system that allows them to search for and pull individual files—in this case images encoded in DNA. It’s a bit like thumbing through your file cabinet, reading the paper tabs to identify a folder, and then pulling the deed to your car from it. Only, obviously, the details are bit more complicated.

“We need new solutions for storing these massive amounts of data that the world is accumulating, especially the archival data,” said Mark Bathe, an MIT professor of biological engineering and senior author of the paper. “DNA is a thousandfold denser than even flash memory, and another property that’s interesting is that once you make the DNA polymer, it doesn’t consume any energy. You can write the DNA and then store it forever.”

How to Organize a DNA Storage System

How does one encode an image in a strand of DNA, anyway? It’s a fairly simple matter of translation.

Each pixel of a digital image is encoded in bits. These bits are represented by 1s and 0s. To convert it into DNA, scientists assign each of these bits to the DNA’s four base molecules, or nucleotides, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine—usually referred to in shorthand by the letters A, C, G, and T. The DNA bases A and G, for example, could represent 1, and C and T could represent 0.

Next, researchers string together (or synthesize) a chain of DNA bases representing each and every bit of information in the original file. To retrieve the image, researchers reverse the process, reading the sequence of DNA bases (or sequencing it) and translating the data back into bits.

The standard retrieval process has a few drawbacks, however.

Researchers use a technique called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to pull files. Each strand of DNA includes an identifying sequence that matches a short sequence of nucleotides called a PCR primer. When the primer is added to the DNA solution, it bonds with matching DNA strands—the ones we want to read—and only those sequences are amplified (that is, copied for sequencing). The problem? Primers can interact with off-target sequences. Worse, the process uses enzymes that chew up all the DNA.

“You’re kind of burning the haystack to find the needle, because all the other DNA is not getting amplified and you’re basically throwing it away,” said Bathe.

MIT DNA data storage image microscopic glass beads
The microscopic glass spheres pictured here are DNA “files.” Each contains an image, encoded in DNA, and is coated in DNA tags describing the image within. Image Credit: Courtesy of the researchers (via MIT News)

To get around this, the Broad Institute team encapsulated the DNA strands in microscopic (6-micron) glass beads. They affixed short, single-stranded DNA labels to the surface of each bead. Like file names, the labels describe the bead’s contents. A tiger image might be labeled “orange,” “cat,” “wild.” A house cat might be labeled “orange,” “cat,” “domestic.” With just four labels per bead, you could uniquely label 1020 DNA files.

The team can retrieve specific files by adding complementary nucleotide sequences, or primers, corresponding to an individual file’s label. The primers contain fluorescent molecules, and when they link up with a complementary strand—that is, the searched-for label—they form a double helix and glow. Machines separate out the glowing beads, which are opened and the DNA inside sequenced. The rest of the DNA files remain untouched, left in peace to guard their information.

The best part of the method is its scalability. You could, in theory, have a huge DNA library stored in a test tube—Bathe notes a coffee mug of DNA could store all the world’s data—but without an easy way to search and retrieve the exact file you’re looking for, it’s worthless. With this method, everything can be retrieved.

George Church, a Harvard professor of genetics and well-known figure in the field of synthetic biology, called it a “giant leap” for the field.

“The rapid progress in writing, copying, reading, and low-energy archival data storage in DNA form has left poorly explored opportunities for precise retrieval of data files from huge…databases,” he said. “The new study spectacularly addresses this using a completely independent outer layer of DNA and leveraging different properties of DNA (hybridization rather than sequencing), and moreover, using existing instruments and chemistries.”

This Isn’t Coming For Your Computer

To be clear, all DNA data storage, including the work outlined in this study, remains firmly in the research phase. Don’t expect DNA hard drives for your laptop anytime soon.

Synthesizing DNA is still extremely expensive. It’d cost something like $1 trillion dollars to write a petabyte of data in DNA. To match magnetic tape, a common method of archival data storage, Bathe estimates synthesis costs would have to fall six orders of magnitude. Also, this isn’t the speediest technique (to put it mildly).

The cost of DNA synthesis will fall—the technology is being advanced in other areas as well—and with more work, the speed will improve. But the latter may be beside the point. That is, if we’re mainly concerned with backing up essential data for the long term with minimal energy requirements and no need to regularly access it, then speed is less important than fidelity, data density, and durability.

DNA already stores the living world’s information, now, it seems, it can do the same for all things digital too.

Image Credit: Courtesy of the researchers (via MIT News).

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