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9 minutes reading time (1781 words)

A Mind-expanding Experience

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Dave Moursund



The MIT Technology Review is one of my favorite periodicals. I recently received the September/October 2014 issue, and the article 35 Innovators Under 35 caught my eye.

This IAE Blog entry provides brief summaries of the work of four of the innovators featured in the article. To me, their work is mind expanding—even mind blowing! I wonder whether many of our precollege and undergraduate students are learning about these examples of young people who are conducting amazing research and development that is changing our world.

The 35 Innovators

Quoting from the 35 Innovators Under 35 article:

All 35 of these people are doing exciting work that could shape their fields for decades. But they’re solving problems in remarkably different ways. We consider some of them to be primarily Inventors; they’re immersed in building new technologies. Others we call Visionaries, because they’re showing how technologies could be put to new or better uses. Humanitarians are using technology to expand opportunities or inform public policy. Pioneers are doing fundamental work that will spawn future innovations; such—breakthroughs will be taken up by tomorrow’s Entrepreneurs—people who are building new tech businesses.

Notice the range of categories and the diversity of the innovators. They are a good mixture of women and men from throughout the world, ranging in age from 21 to 34.

Think about what you can do to help your students to become the inventors, visionaries, humanitarians, pioneers, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

A Few Examples

Emily Balskus

Emily Balskus is a Harvard assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology. Quoting from the 35 Innovators Under 35 article:

Emily Balskus…uses a variety of approaches, including advanced DNA sequencing, to discover new metabolic pathways and to study how gut bacteria use chemical reactions to survive. Some 100 trillion bacteria live in our intestines, and their activities are strongly linked to illnesses like heart disease and colon cancer—and are critical in maintaining our general health.

In one example of her success, Balskus’s Harvard lab has been credited with uncovering the bacterial enzymes in the human gut that convert the essential nutrient choline to trimethylamine, a metabolite linked to heart disease.


I noticed the casual mention of 100 trillion bacteria living in our intestines. This is about ten times as many non-human bacteria as the total number of human cells in a human. The use of DNA sequencing is now common tool in biology.

George Ban-Weiss

George Ban-Weiss is a University of Southern California professor who studies climate and pollution. Quoting from the 35 Innovators Under 35 article:

Most roofs, historically, have been dark. They absorb sunlight, then transfer heat into the building and into the atmosphere. A very simple solution to that is to design roofs to reflect sunlight rather than absorb it. Cool roofs. Cool roofs could counter somewhere between a half and two degrees Celsius of warming in urban areas.


Ban-Weiss investigated the situation of dark roofs versus cool roofs on houses and buildings. His work led to the Los Angeles city council, in December 2013, to pass a law requiring any new or refurbished roofs on residential buildings to be cool roofs.

What a simple but important action on the part of the Los Angeles city council. Think about what a group of students can do to inform homeowners and/or builders, and the city council to act on this important environmental problem.

Here is a quote from a U.S. Department of Energy (2012) report:

The main effect cool roofs could have on the environment is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of energy used to cool buildings. A 2010 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. predicted that making roofs and pavements more reflective in all cities with populations of more than 1 million people in the northern hemisphere would offset 57 billion tons of CO2 emissions [a year] –far more than the 36.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide released worldwide in one year in 2010.

Quoc Le

Quoc Le is a Google research engineer. Quoting from the 35 Innovators Under 35 article:

Growing up in rural Vietnam, Quoc Le didn’t have electricity at home. But he lived near a library, where he read compulsively about great inventions and dreamed of adding to the list.

While at Stanford, Le worked out a strategy that would let software learn things [by] itself. Academics had begun to report promising but very slow results with a method known as deep learning, which uses networks of simulated neurons. Le saw how to speed it up significantly—by building simulated neural networks 100 times larger that could process thousands of times more data.


Machine learning is now a very important subfield of artificial intelligence. Quoting from the machine learning link:

In 1959, Arthur Samuel defined machine learning as a "Field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed."

The key idea is that humans are making significant progress in developing computer systems that can learn (on their own or with the help of humans) to solve problems that are beyond the capabilities of humans. For more about educational aspects of human and computer brains working together, see my IAE-pedia article Two Brains Are Better Than One. Our educational system is struggling with the problem of what students should learn to do “by hand” versus what they should learn to do making use of the combination of their human brains and computer brains.

Julie Shah

Julie Shaw is an MIT engineering professor working in the field of robotics. Quoting from the 35 Innovators Under 35 article:

In factories there are usually physical barriers between people and robots. Originally, this was for safety—industrial robots were unwieldy and unyielding. Although robots are increasingly designed to safely share human workspaces, even in these settings, people do one set of jobs and robots do another.

Imagine if robots could be truly collaborative partners, able to anticipate and adapt to the needs of their human teammates. Such robots could greatly extend productivity. That possibility is really exciting to me.

The interesting thing about this is that there’s evidence to suggest the techniques can translate to better human-machine teamwork in almost any setting—from manufacturing to operating rooms to military applications. I think the insights will apply very broadly. After all, good teamwork is good teamwork.


Although robots have long been used in manufacturing, their use is gradually expanding. Can you visualize a robot on wheels rolling into a hospital patient’s room, chatting with the patient, and helping her to get out of bed and move to the bathroom? See Kevin Kelly’s article, Better Than Human: Why Robots Will—And Must—Take Our Jobs (12/24/2012). Such expanding use of robots means that more and more of us will routinely interact with them in person.

More MIT Technology Review Information About Innovators

The Wikipedia article TR35 provides a history of the “under 35” project and links to previous years’ results. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

The award was started in 1999 as the TR100, with 100 winners, but was changed to 35 winners starting in 2005. The awards are presented to the winners at the annual Emtech conference on emerging technologies, held in the fall at MIT, where there is an awards ceremony and reception. There are several regional TR35 lists produced by Technology Review also, such as the list of the top 35 innovators under 35 in India, Spain, Italy, and France. The regional winners are then considered as candidates for the global list.

For more examples of technological innovations, see Quoting from this site:

For almost 115 years, MIT Technology Review has been identifying important new technologies and deciphering their practical impact. We’ve brought that mission and our journalism to life through EmTech since 1999, gathering the sharpest minds in the technology, engineering, academic, startup, and management communities to provide insight into the innovations that shape the world and your business.

See a web history of previous EmTechs: 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007.

Final Remarks

We are all aware of technology-based changes that are going on around us. The tools that facilitate research and development in technology are improving rapidly as researchers and developers continue to build on the previous work of others.

Some people believe the pace of change is overwhelming, while others revel in the new products and services that are improving their quality of life. For young children, everything is new–they have no concept of whether the “stuff” they are learning about was invented hundreds of years ago or just months ago. It is we “oldsters” who have to adapt to products, services, medicine, and so on that were not available when we were youngsters.

35 Innovators Under 35 presents good examples of current technological advances that will change people’s lives. These and many similar advances will also lead to changes in the content, teaching methods, and assessment in our schools.

What You Can Do

Continue to learn about the changes being wrought by technological research and development. Learn from the children you interact with, from the media, and by your own use of the technology. Then routinely share your increasing knowledge and skills with your students, colleagues, and others in your life.

If you teach at the high school or college level, you might want to bring this article to the attention of your students.


35 innovators under 35 (September-October, 2014). MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 8/31/2014 from

Kelly, K. (12/24/2012). Better than human: Why robots will—and must—take our jobs. Wired. Retrieved 8/31/2014 from

U.S. Department of Energy (2012). How cool are cool roofs? PPPL serves as the laboratory to find the answer. U.S. Department of Energy Research News. Retrieved 9/1/2014 from

Suggested Readings from IAE

IAE Newsletter. (2014). Education for student’s futures. This is a February-September, 2014 sequence of IAE Newsletters. See Issues 132-146 at

Moursund, D. (2014). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/1/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). History of computers in education. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/1/2014 from

Moursund, D. (12/21/2013). Education for the future. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/1/2014 from

Moursund, D. (9/30/2013). A personal digital filing cabinet for every teacher. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/1/2014 from

Moursund, D. (12/26/2012). Predictions about the future of computer technology. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/1/2014 from

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