2020 MacVicar Faculty Fellows named

The Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Registrar’s Office have announced this year’s Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellows: materials science and engineering Professor Polina Anikeeva, literature Professor Mary Fuller, chemical engineering Professor William Tisdale, and electrical engineering and computer science Professor Jacob White.

Role models both in and out of the classroom, the new fellows have tirelessly sought to improve themselves, their students, and the Institute writ large. They have reimagined curricula, crossed disciplines, and pushed the boundaries of what education can be. They join a matchless academy of scholars committed to exceptional instruction and innovation.

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz will honor the fellows at this year’s MacVicar Day symposium, “Learning through Experience: Education for a Fulfilling and Engaged Life.” In a series of lightning talks, student and faculty speakers will examine how MIT — through its many opportunities for experiential learning — supports students’ aspirations and encourages them to become engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders.

The event will be held on March 13 from 2:30-4 p.m. in Room 6-120. A reception will follow in Room 2-290. All in the MIT community are welcome to attend.

For nearly three decades, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has been recognizing exemplary undergraduate teaching and advising around the Institute. The program was named after Margaret MacVicar, the first dean for undergraduate education and founder of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Nominations are made by departments and include letters of support from colleagues, students, and alumni. Fellows are appointed to 10-year terms in which they receive $10,000 per year of discretionary funds.

Polina Anikeeva

“I’m speechless,” Polina Anikeeva, associate professor of materials science and engineering and brain and cognitive sciences, says of becoming a MacVicar Fellow. “In my opinion, this is the greatest honor one could have at MIT.”

Anikeeva received her PhD from MIT in 2009 and became a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering two years later. She attended St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University for her undergraduate education. Through her research — which combines materials science, electronics, and neurobiology — she works to better understand and treat brain disorders.

Anikeeva’s colleague Christopher Schuh says, “Her ability and willingness to work with students however and whenever they need help, her engaging classroom persona, and her creative solutions to real-time challenges all culminate in one of MIT’s most talented and beloved undergraduate professors.”

As an instructor, advisor, and marathon runner, Anikeeva has learned the importance of finding balance. Her colleague Lionel Kimerling reflects on this delicate equilibrium: “As a teacher, Professor Anikeeva is among the elite who instruct, inspire, and nurture at the same time. It is a difficult task to demand rigor with a gentle mentoring hand.”

Students call her classes “incredibly hard” but fun and exciting at the same time. She is “the consummate scientist, splitting her time evenly between honing her craft, sharing knowledge with students and colleagues, and mentoring aspiring researchers,” wrote one.

Her passion for her work and her devotion to her students are evident in the nomination letters. One student recounted their first conversation: “We spoke for 15 minutes, and after talking to her about her research and materials science, I had never been so viscerally excited about anything.” This same student described the guidance and support Anikeeva provided her throughout her time at MIT.

After working with Anikeeva to apply what she learned in the classroom to a real-world problem, this student recalled, “I honestly felt like an engineer and a scientist for the first time ever. I have never felt so fulfilled and capable. And I realize that’s what I want for the rest of my life — to feel the highs and lows of discovery.”

Anikeeva champions her students in faculty and committee meetings as well. She is a “reliable advocate for student issues,” says Caroline Ross, associate department head and professor in DMSE. “Professor Anikeeva is always engaged with students, committed to student well-being, and passionate about education.”

“Undergraduate teaching has always been a crucial part of my MIT career and life,” Anikeeva reflects. “I derive my enthusiasm and energy from the incredibly talented MIT students — every year they surprise me with their ability to rise to ever-expanding intellectual challenges. Watching them grow as scientists, engineers, and — most importantly — people is like nothing else.”

Mary Fuller

Experimentation is synonymous with education at MIT and it is a crucial part of literature Professor Mary Fuller’s classes. As her colleague Arthur Bahr notes, “Mary’s habit of starting with a discrete practical challenge can yield insights into much broader questions.”

Fuller attended Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, then received both her MA and PhD in English and American literature from The Johns Hopkins University. She began teaching at MIT in 1989. From 2013 to 2019, Fuller was head of the Literature Section. Her successor in the role, Shankar Raman, says that her nominators “found [themselves] repeatedly surprised by the different ways Mary has pushed the limits of her teaching here, going beyond her own comfort zones to experiment with new texts and techniques.”

“Probably the most significant thing I’ve learned in 30 years of teaching here is how to ask more and better questions,” says Fuller. As part of a series of discussions on ethics and computing, she has explored the possibilities of artificial intelligence from a literary perspective. She is also developing a tool for the edX platform called PoetryViz, which would allow MIT students and students around the world to practice close reading through poetry annotation in an entirely new way.

“We all innovate in our teaching. Every year. But, some of us innovate more than others,” Krishna Rajagopal, dean for digital learning, observes. “In addition to being an outstanding innovator, Mary is one of those colleagues who weaves the fabric of undergraduate education across the Institute.”

Lessons learned in Fuller’s class also underline the importance of a well-rounded education. As one alumna reflected, “Mary’s teaching carried a compassion and ethic which enabled non-humanities students to appreciate literature as a diverse, valuable, and rewarding resource for personal and social reflection.”

Professor Fuller, another student remarked, has created “an environment where learning is not merely the digestion of rote knowledge, but instead the broad-based exploration of ideas and the works connected to them.”

“Her imagination is capacious, her knowledge is deep, and students trust her — so that they follow her eagerly into new and exploratory territory,” says Professor of Literature Stephen Tapscott.

Fuller praises her students’ willingness to take that journey with her, saying, “None of my classes are required, and none are technical, so I feel that students have already shown a kind of intellectual generosity by putting themselves in the room to do the work.”

For students, the hard work is worth it. Mary Fuller, one nominator declared, is exactly “the type of deeply impactful professor that I attended MIT hoping to learn from.”

William Tisdale

William Tisdale is the ARCO Career Development Professor of chemical engineering and, according to his colleagues, a “true star” in the department.

A member of the faculty since 2012, he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware and his PhD from the University of Minnesota. After a year as a postdoc at MIT, Tisdale became an assistant professor. His research interests include nanotechnology and energy transport.

Tisdale’s colleague Kristala Prather calls him a “curriculum fixer.” During an internal review of Course 10 subjects, the department discovered that 10.213 (Chemical and Biological Engineering) was the least popular subject in the major and needed to be revised. After carefully evaluating the coursework, and despite having never taught 10.213 himself, Tisdale envisioned a novel way of teaching it. With his suggestions, the class went from being “despised” to loved, with subject evaluations improving by 70 percent from one spring to the next. “I knew Will could make a difference, but I had no idea he could make that big of a difference in just one year,” remarks Prather.

One student nominator even went so far as to call 10.213, as taught by Tisdale, “one of my best experiences at MIT.”

Always patient, kind, and adaptable, Tisdale’s willingness to tackle difficult problems is reflected in his teaching. “While the class would occasionally start to mutiny when faced with a particularly confusing section, Prof. Tisdale would take our groans on with excitement,” wrote one student. “His attitude made us feel like we could all get through the class together.” Regardless of how they performed on a test, wrote another, Tisdale “clearly sent the message that we all always have so much more to learn, but that first and foremost he respected you as a person.”

“I don’t think I could teach the way I teach at many other universities,” Tisdale says. “MIT students show up on the first day of class with an innate desire to understand the world around them; all I have to do is pull back the curtain!”

“Professor Tisdale remains the best teacher, mentor, and role model that I have encountered,” one student remarked. “He has truly changed the course of my life.”

“I am extremely thankful to be at a university that values undergraduate education so highly,” Tisdale says. “Those of us who devote ourselves to undergraduate teaching and mentoring do so out of a strong sense of responsibility to the students as well as a genuine love of learning. There are few things more validating than being rewarded for doing something that already brings you joy.”

Jacob White

Jacob White is the Cecil H. Green Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and chair of the Committee on Curricula. After completing his undergraduate degree at MIT, he received a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. He has been a member of the Course 6 faculty since 1987.

Colleagues and students alike observed White’s dedication not just to teaching, but to improving teaching throughout the Institute. As Luca Daniel and Asu Ozdaglar of the EECS department noted in their nomination letter, “Jacob completely understands that the most efficient way to make his passion and ideas for undergraduate education have a real lasting impact is to ‘teach it to the teachers!’”

One student wrote that White “has spent significant time and effort educating the lab assistants” of 6.302 (Feedback System Design). As one of these teaching assistants confirmed, White’s “enthusiastic spirit” inspired them to spend hours discussing how to best teach the subject. “Many people might think this is not how they want to spend their Thursday nights,” the student wrote. “I can speak for myself and the other TAs when I say that it was an incredibly fun and educational experience.”

His work to improve instruction has even expanded to other departments. A colleague describes White’s efforts to revamp 8.02 (Physics II) as “Herculean.” Working with a group of students and postdocs to develop experiments for this subject, “he seemed to be everywhere at once … while simultaneously teaching his own class.” Iterations took place over a year and a half, after which White trained the subject’s TAs as well. Hundreds of students are benefitting from these improved experiments.

White is, according to Daniel and Ozdaglar, “a colleague who sincerely, genuinely, and enormously cares about our undergraduate students and their education, not just in our EECS department, but also in our entire MIT home.”

When he’s not fine-tuning pedagogy or conducting teacher training, he is personally supporting his students. A visiting student described White’s attention: “He would regularly meet with us in groups of two to make sure we were learning. In a class of about 80 students in a huge lecture hall, it really felt like he cared for each of us.”

And his zeal has rubbed off: “He made me feel like being excited about the material was the most important thing,” one student wrote.
The significance of such a spark is not lost on White.

“As an MIT freshman in the late 1970s, I joined an undergraduate research program being pioneered by Professor Margaret MacVicar,” he says. “It was Professor MacVicar and UROP that put me on the academic’s path of looking for interesting problems with instructive solutions. It is a path I have walked for decades, with extraordinary colleagues and incredible students. So, being selected as a MacVicar Fellow? No honor could mean more to me.”

A new way to deliver drugs with pinpoint targeting

Most pharmaceuticals must either be ingested or injected into the body to do their work. Either way, it takes some time for them to reach their intended targets, and they also tend to spread out to other areas of the body. Now, researchers at the McGovern Institute at MIT and elsewhere have developed a system to deliver medical treatments that can be released at precise times, minimally-invasively, and that ultimately could also deliver those drugs to specifically targeted areas such as a specific group of neurons in the brain.

The new approach is based on the use of tiny magnetic particles enclosed within a tiny hollow bubble of lipids (fatty molecules) filled with water, known as a liposome. The drug of choice is encapsulated within these bubbles, and can be released by applying a magnetic field to heat up the particles, allowing the drug to escape from the liposome and into the surrounding tissue.

The findings are reported today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology in a paper by MIT postdoc Siyuan Rao, Associate Professor Polina Anikeeva, and 14 others at MIT, Stanford University, Harvard University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

“We wanted a system that could deliver a drug with temporal precision, and could eventually target a particular location,” Anikeeva explains. “And if we don’t want it to be invasive, we need to find a non-invasive way to trigger the release.”

Magnetic fields, which can easily penetrate through the body — as demonstrated by detailed internal images produced by magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI — were a natural choice. The hard part was finding materials that could be triggered to heat up by using a very weak magnetic field (about one-hundredth the strength of that used for MRI), in order to prevent damage to the drug or surrounding tissues, Rao says.

Rao came up with the idea of taking magnetic nanoparticles, which had already been shown to be capable of being heated by placing them in a magnetic field, and packing them into these spheres called liposomes. These are like little bubbles of lipids, which naturally form a spherical double layer surrounding a water droplet.

Electron microscope image shows the actual liposome, the white blob at center, with its magnetic particles showing up in black at its center.
Image courtesy of the researchers

When placed inside a high-frequency but low-strength magnetic field, the nanoparticles heat up, warming the lipids and making them undergo a transition from solid to liquid, which makes the layer more porous — just enough to let some of the drug molecules escape into the surrounding areas. When the magnetic field is switched off, the lipids re-solidify, preventing further releases. Over time, this process can be repeated, thus releasing doses of the enclosed drug at precisely controlled intervals.

The drug carriers were engineered to be stable inside the body at the normal body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, but able to release their payload of drugs at a temperature of 42 degrees. “So we have a magnetic switch for drug delivery,” and that amount of heat is small enough “so that you don’t cause thermal damage to tissues,” says Anikeeva, who also holds appointments in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and the Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

In principle, this technique could also be used to guide the particles to specific, pinpoint locations in the body, using gradients of magnetic fields to push them along, but that aspect of the work is an ongoing project. For now, the researchers have been injecting the particles directly into the target locations, and using the magnetic fields to control the timing of drug releases. “The technology will allow us to address the spatial aspect,” Anikeeva says, but that has not yet been demonstrated.

This could enable very precise treatments for a wide variety of conditions, she says. “Many brain disorders are characterized by erroneous activity of certain cells. When neurons are too active or not active enough, that manifests as a disorder, such as Parkinson’s, or depression, or epilepsy.” If a medical team wanted to deliver a drug to a specific patch of neurons and at a particular time, such as when an onset of symptoms is detected, without subjecting the rest of the brain to that drug, this system “could give us a very precise way to treat those conditions,” she says.

Rao says that making these nanoparticle-activated liposomes is actually quite a simple process. “We can prepare the liposomes with the particles within minutes in the lab,” she says, and the process should be “very easy to scale up” for manufacturing. And the system is broadly applicable for drug delivery: “we can encapsulate any water-soluble drug,” and with some adaptations, other drugs as well, she says.

One key to developing this system was perfecting and calibrating a way of making liposomes of a highly uniform size and composition. This involves mixing a water base with the fatty acid lipid molecules and magnetic nanoparticles and homogenizing them under precisely controlled conditions. Anikeeva compares it to shaking a bottle of salad dressing to get the oil and vinegar mixed, but controlling the timing, direction and strength of the shaking to ensure a precise mixing.

Anikeeva says that while her team has focused on neurological disorders, as that is their specialty, the drug delivery system is actually quite general and could be applied to almost any part of the body, for example to deliver cancer drugs, or even to deliver painkillers directly to an affected area instead of delivering them systemically and affecting the whole body. “This could deliver it to where it’s needed, and not deliver it continuously,” but only as needed.

Because the magnetic particles themselves are similar to those already in widespread use as contrast agents for MRI scans, the regulatory approval process for their use may be simplified, as their biological compatibility has largely been proven.

The team included researchers in MIT’s departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, as well as the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Simons Center for Social Brain, and the Research Laboratory of Electronics; the Harvard University Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and the John A. Paulsen School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Stanford University; and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The work was supported by the Simons Postdoctoral Fellowship, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Bose Research Grant, and the National Institutes of Health.

Artificial “muscles” achieve powerful pulling force

As a cucumber plant grows, it sprouts tightly coiled tendrils that seek out supports in order to pull the plant upward. This ensures the plant receives as much sunlight exposure as possible. Now, researchers at MIT have found a way to imitate this coiling-and-pulling mechanism to produce contracting fibers that could be used as artificial muscles for robots, prosthetic limbs, or other mechanical and biomedical applications.

While many different approaches have been used for creating artificial muscles, including hydraulic systems, servo motors, shape-memory metals, and polymers that respond to stimuli, they all have limitations, including high weight or slow response times. The new fiber-based system, by contrast, is extremely lightweight and can respond very quickly, the researchers say. The findings are being reported today in the journal Science.

The new fibers were developed by MIT postdoc Mehmet Kanik and MIT graduate student Sirma Örgüç, working with professors Polina Anikeeva, Yoel Fink, Anantha Chandrakasan, and C. Cem Taşan, and five others, using a fiber-drawing technique to combine two dissimilar polymers into a single strand of fiber.

The key to the process is mating together two materials that have very different thermal expansion coefficients — meaning they have different rates of expansion when they are heated. This is the same principle used in many thermostats, for example, using a bimetallic strip as a way of measuring temperature. As the joined material heats up, the side that wants to expand faster is held back by the other material. As a result, the bonded material curls up, bending toward the side that is expanding more slowly.

Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

Using two different polymers bonded together, a very stretchable cyclic copolymer elastomer and a much stiffer thermoplastic polyethylene, Kanik, Örgüç and colleagues produced a fiber that, when stretched out to several times its original length, naturally forms itself into a tight coil, very similar to the tendrils that cucumbers produce. But what happened next actually came as a surprise when the researchers first experienced it. “There was a lot of serendipity in this,” Anikeeva recalls.

As soon as Kanik picked up the coiled fiber for the first time, the warmth of his hand alone caused the fiber to curl up more tightly. Following up on that observation, he found that even a small increase in temperature could make the coil tighten up, producing a surprisingly strong pulling force. Then, as soon as the temperature went back down, the fiber returned to its original length. In later testing, the team showed that this process of contracting and expanding could be repeated 10,000 times “and it was still going strong,” Anikeeva says.

Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

One of the reasons for that longevity, she says, is that “everything is operating under very moderate conditions,” including low activation temperatures. Just a 1-degree Celsius increase can be enough to start the fiber contraction.

The fibers can span a wide range of sizes, from a few micrometers (millionths of a meter) to a few millimeters (thousandths of a meter) in width, and can easily be manufactured in batches up to hundreds of meters long. Tests have shown that a single fiber is capable of lifting loads of up to 650 times its own weight. For these experiments on individual fibers, Örgüç and Kanik have developed dedicated, miniaturized testing setups.

Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

The degree of tightening that occurs when the fiber is heated can be “programmed” by determining how much of an initial stretch to give the fiber. This allows the material to be tuned to exactly the amount of force needed and the amount of temperature change needed to trigger that force.

The fibers are made using a fiber-drawing system, which makes it possible to incorporate other components into the fiber itself. Fiber drawing is done by creating an oversized version of the material, called a preform, which is then heated to a specific temperature at which the material becomes viscous. It can then be pulled, much like pulling taffy, to create a fiber that retains its internal structure but is a small fraction of the width of the preform.

For testing purposes, the researchers coated the fibers with meshes of conductive nanowires. These meshes can be used as sensors to reveal the exact tension experienced or exerted by the fiber. In the future, these fibers could also include heating elements such as optical fibers or electrodes, providing a way of heating it internally without having to rely on any outside heat source to activate the contraction of the “muscle.”

Such fibers could find uses as actuators in robotic arms, legs, or grippers, and in prosthetic limbs, where their slight weight and fast response times could provide a significant advantage.

Some prosthetic limbs today can weigh as much as 30 pounds, with much of the weight coming from actuators, which are often pneumatic or hydraulic; lighter-weight actuators could thus make life much easier for those who use prosthetics. Such fibers might also find uses in tiny biomedical devices, such as a medical robot that works by going into an artery and then being activated,” Anikeeva suggests. “We have activation times on the order of tens of milliseconds to seconds,” depending on the dimensions, she says.

To provide greater strength for lifting heavier loads, the fibers can be bundled together, much as muscle fibers are bundled in the body. The team successfully tested bundles of 100 fibers. Through the fiber drawing process, sensors could also be incorporated in the fibers to provide feedback on conditions they encounter, such as in a prosthetic limb. Örgüç says bundled muscle fibers with a closed-loop feedback mechanism could find applications in robotic systems where automated and precise control are required.

Kanik says that the possibilities for materials of this type are virtually limitless, because almost any combination of two materials with different thermal expansion rates could work, leaving a vast realm of possible combinations to explore. He adds that this new finding was like opening a new window, only to see “a bunch of other windows” waiting to be opened.

“The strength of this work is coming from its simplicity,” he says.

The team also included MIT graduate student Georgios Varnavides, postdoc Jinwoo Kim, and undergraduate students Thomas Benavides, Dani Gonzalez, and Timothy Akintlio. The work was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Science Foundation.

Plugging into the brain

Driven by curiosity and therapeutic goals, Anikeeva leaves no scientific stone unturned in her drive to invent neurotechnology.

The audience sits utterly riveted as Polina Anikeeva highlights the gaps she sees in the landscape of neural tools. With a background in optoelectronics, she has a decidedly unique take on the brain.

“In neuroscience,” says Anikeeva, “we are currently applying silicon-based neural probes with the elastic properties of a knife to a delicate material with the consistency of chocolate pudding—the brain.”

A key problem, summarized by Anikeeva, is that these sharp probes damage tissue, making such interfaces unreliable and thwarting long term brain studies of processes including development and aging. The state of the art is even grimmer in the clinic. An avid climber, Anikeeva recalls a friend sustaining a spinal cord injury. “She made a remarkable recovery,” explains Anikeeva, “but seeing the technology being used to help her was shocking. Not even the simplest electronic tools were used, it was basically lots of screws and physical therapy.” This crude approach, compared to the elegant optoelectronic tools familiar to Anikeeva, sparked a drive to bring advanced materials technology to biological systems.

Outside the box

As the group breaks up after the seminar, the chatter includes boxes, more precisely, thinking outside of them. An associate professor in material sciences and engineering at MIT, Anikeeva’s interest in neuroscience recently led to a McGovern Institute appointment. She sees her journey to neurobiology as serendipitous, having earned her doctorate designing light-emitting devices at MIT.

“I wanted to work on tools that don’t exist, and neuroscience seemed like an obvious choice. Neurons communicate in part through membrane voltage changes and as an electronics designer, I felt that I should be able to use voltage.”

Comfort at the intersection of sciences requires, according to Anikeeva, clarity and focus, also important in her chief athletic pursuits, running and climbing. Through long distant running, Anikeeva finds solitary time (“assuming that no one can chase me”) and the clarity to consider complicated technical questions. Climbing hones something different, absolute focus in the face of the often-tangled information that comes with working at scientific intersections.

“When climbing, you can only think about one thing, your next move. Only the most important thoughts float up.”

This became particularly important when, in Yosemite National Park, she made the decision to go up, instead of down, during an impending thunderstorm. Getting out depended on clear focus, despite imminent hypothermia and being exposed “on one of the tallest features in the area, holding large quantities of metal.” Polina and her climbing partner made it out, but her summary of events echoes her research philosophy: “What you learn and develop is a strong mindset where you don’t do the comfortable thing, the easy thing. Instead you always find, and execute, the most logical strategy.”

In this vein, Anikeeva’s research pursues two very novel, but exceptionally logical, paths to brain research and therapeutics: fiber development and magnetic nanomaterials.

Drawing new fibers

Walking into Anikeeva’s lab, the eye is immediately drawn to a robust metal frame containing, upon closer scrutiny, recognizable parts: a large drill bit, a motor, a heating element. This custom-built machine applies principles from telecommunications to draw multifunctional fibers using more “brain-friendly” materials.

“We start out with a macroscopic model, a preform, of the device that we ultimately want,” explains Anikeeva.

This “preform” is a transparent block of polymers, composites, and soft low-melting temperature metals with optical and electrical properties needed in the final fiber. “So, this could include
electrodes for recording, optical channels for optogenetics, microfluidics for drug delivery, and one day even components that allow chemical or mechanical sensing.” After sitting in a vacuum to remove gases and impurities, the two-inch by one-inch preform arrives at the fiber-drawing tower.

“Then we heat it and pull it, and the macroscopic model becomes a kilometer-long fiber with a lateral dimension of microns, even nanometers,” explains Anikeeva. “Take one of your hairs, and imagine that inside there are electrodes for recording, there are microfluidic channels to infuse drugs, optical channels for stimulation. All of this is combined in a single miniature form
factor, and it can be quite flexible and even stretchable.”

Construction crew

Anikeeva’s lab comprises an eclectic mix of 21 researchers from over 13 different countries, and a range of expertises, including materials science, chemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering, and neuroscience. In 2011, Andres Canales, a materials scientist from Mexico, was the second person to join Anikeeva’s lab.

“There was only an idea, a diagram,” explains Canales. “I didn’t want to work on biology when I arrived at MIT, but talking to Polina, seeing the pictures, thinking about what it would entail, I became very excited by the methods and the potential applications she was thinking of.”

Despite the lack of preliminary models, Anikeeva’s ideas were compelling. Elegant as the fibers are, the road involved painstaking, iterative refinement. From a materials perspective, drawing a fiber containing a continuous conductive element was challenging, as was validation of its properties. But the resulting fiber can deliver optogenetics vectors, monitor expression, and then stimulate neuronal activity in a single surgery, removing the spatial and temporal guesswork usually involved in such an experiment.

Seongjun Park, an electrical engineering graduate student in the lab, explains one biological challenge. “For long term recording in the spinal cord, there was even an additional challenge as the fiber needed to be stretchable to respond to the spine’s movement. For this we developed a drawing process compatible with an elastomer.”

The resulting fibers can be deployed chronically without the scar tissue accumulation that usually prevents long-term optical manipulation and drug delivery, making them good candidates for the treatment of brain disorders. The lab’s current papers find that these implanted fibers are useful for three months, and material innovations make them confident that longer time periods are possible.

Magnetic moments

Another wing of Anikeeva’s research aims to develop entirely non-invasive modalities, and use magnetic nanoparticles to stimulate the brain and deliver therapeutics.

“Magnetic fields are probably the best modality for getting any kind of stimulus to deep tissues,” explains Anikeeva, “because biological systems, except for very specialized systems, do not perceive magnetic fields. They go through us unattenuated, and they don’t couple to our physiology.”

In other words, magnetic fields can safely reach deep tissues, including the brain. Upon reaching their tissue targets these fields can be used to stimulate magnetic nanoparticles, which might one day, for example, be used to deliver dopamine to the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients. The alternating magnetic fields being used in these experiments are tiny, 100-1000 times smaller than fields clinically approved for MRI-based brain imaging.

Tiny fields, but they can be used to powerful effect. By manipulating magnetic moments in these nanoparticles, the magnetic field can cause heat dissipation by the particle that can stimulate thermal receptors in the nervous system. These receptors naturally detect heat, chili peppers and vanilla, but Anikeeva’s magnetic nanoparticles act as tiny heaters that activate these receptors, and, in turn, local neurons. This principle has already been used to activate the brain’s reward center in freely moving mice.

Siyuan Rao, a postdoc who works on the magnetic nanoparticles in collaboration with McGovern Investigator Guoping Feng, is unhesitating when asked what most inspires her.

“As a materials scientist, it is really rewarding to see my materials at work. We can remotely modulate mouse behavior, even turn hopeless behavior into motivation.”

Pushing the boundaries

Such collaborations are valued by Anikeeva. Early on she worked with McGovern Investigator Emilio Bizzi to use the above fiber technology in the spinal cord. “It is important to us to not just make these devices,” explains Anikeeva, “but to use them and show ourselves, and our colleagues, the types of experiments that they can enable.”

Far from an assembly line, the researchers in Anikeeva’s lab follow projects from ideation to deployment. “The student that designs a fiber, performs their own behavioral experiments, and data analysis,” says Anikeeva. “Biology is unforgiving. You can trivially design the most brilliant electrophysiological recording probe, but unless you are directly working in the system, it is easy to miss important design considerations.”

Inspired by this, Anikeeva’s students even started a project with Gloria Choi’s group on their own initiative. This collaborative, can-do ethos spreads beyond the walls of the lab, inspiring people around MIT.

“We often work with a teaching instructor, David Bono, who is an expert on electronics and magnetic instruments,” explains Alex Senko, a senior graduate student in the lab. “In his spare time, he helps those of us who work on electrical engineering flavored projects to hunt down components needed to build our devices.”

These components extend to whatever is needed. When a low frequency source was needed, the Anikeeva lab drafted a guitar amplifier.

Queried about difficulties that she faces having chosen to navigate such a broad swath of fields, Anikeeva is focused, as ever, on the unknown, the boundaries of knowledge.

“Honestly, I really, really enjoy it. It keeps me engaged and not bored. Even when thinking about complicated physics and chemistry, I always have eyes on the prize, that this will allow us to address really interesting neuroscience questions.”

With such thinking, and by relentlessly seeking the tools needed to accomplish scientific goals, Anikeeva and her lab continue to avoid the comfortable route, instead using logical routes toward new technologies.

Polina Anikeeva

Probing the Mind

Polina Anikeeva designs, synthesizes, and fabricates optoelectronic and magnetic devices to advance fundamental understanding and treatment of disorders of the nervous system. Anikeeva’s lab designs probes that are compatible with delicate neural tissue, but match the signaling complexity of neural circuits. In addition, her group develops magnetic nanoparticles for non-invasive neural stimulation. Most recently, Anikeeva is exploring the pathways connecting the brain to other body organ systems with the goal of advancing therapies and predictive diagnostics to achieve healthy minds in healthy bodies.

Polina Anikeeva and Feng Zhang awarded 2018 Vilcek Prize

Polina Anikeeva, the Class of 1942 Associate Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and associate director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and Feng Zhang, the James and Patricia Poitras ’63 Professor in Neuroscience at the McGovern Institute, have each been awarded a 2018 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. Awarded annually by the Vilcek Foundation, the $50,000 prizes recognize younger immigrants who have demonstrated exceptional promise early in their careers.

“The Vilcek Prizes were established in appreciation of the immigrants who chose to dedicate their vision and talent to bettering American society,” says Rick Kinsel, president of the Vilcek Foundation. “This year’s prizewinners honor and continue that legacy with works of astounding, revolutionary importance.”

Polina Anikeeva, who was born in the former Soviet Union, earned her PhD in materials science and engineering at MIT in 2009 and now runs her own bioelectronics lab in the same department focused on the development of materials and devices that enable recording and manipulation of signaling processes within the nervous system. The Vilcek Foundation recognizes Anikeeva for “fashioning ingenious solutions to long-standing challenges in biomedical engineering” including the design of therapeutic devices for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injury.

Feng Zhang, who is also a core member of the Broad Institute and an associate professor in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering, is being recognized for his role in advancing optogenetics (a method for controlling brain activity with light) and developing molecular tools to edit the genome. Thanks to his leadership in inventing precise and efficient gene-editing technologies using CRISPR, Zhang’s work has resulted in a “growing array of applications, such as uncovering the genetic underpinnings of diseases, ushering in gene therapies to cure heritable diseases, and improving agriculture.” Zhang’s family immigrated to the United States from China when he was 11 years of age.

Anikeeva and Zhang will be among eight Vilcek prizewinners honored at an awards gala in New York City in April 2018.

The Vilcek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the foundation, to honor the contributions of immigrants to the United States and to foster appreciation of the arts and sciences, was inspired by the couple’s respective careers in biomedical science and art history, as well as their personal experiences and appreciation of the opportunities they received as newcomers to this country.