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Sheila Kennedy receives 2017 Bose Research Grant

Professor Sheila Kennedy was awarded a 2017 Bose Grant for a joint project using nanotechnology to build plants that provide lighting for buildings and cities.

Since 2014, the Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant has supported MIT faculty with innovative and potentially paradigm-shifting research ideas, and this year is no exception: With Bose funding, six research teams composed of nine MIT faculty members will pursue projects ranging from nanoengineering a light-emitting plant to developing solid-state atmospheric propulsion technology for aircraft.  

Steven Barrett, John Hart, Dina Katabi, Timothy Swager, Michael Strano, Sheila Kennedy, Evelyn Wang, Justin Solomon, and Or Hen were recognized at a reception on Monday, Nov. 20, hosted by MIT President L. Rafael Reif and attended by past awardees. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Bose Grants, MIT also held a colloquium that included a panel discussion about the importance of philanthropic support for basic science research.

The grant program is named for the late Amar Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56, a longtime MIT faculty member and the founder of the Bose Corporation. This year’s reception also honored his son, Vanu Bose ’87, SM ’94, PhD ’99, who passed away last month. In his opening remarks, President Reif called Vanu the “heart and soul of the Bose program.” “For now, the best way to honor our friend is to appreciate together the wonderful gift that is the Bose research fellowship,” he said.

Vanu’s wife, Judith, spoke to the newest class of fellows about his boundless enthusiasm for the Bose Grants: “Vanu loved this moment. He loved it for the way that it so beautifully and perfectly celebrated the intellectual curiosity of his father, and of Bose Corporation. And he loved it because it was the moment he got to celebrate all of you.”

The grants support unconventional, ahead-of-the-curve, and often interdisciplinary research endeavors that are unlikely to be funded through traditional avenues, yet have the potential to lead to big breakthroughs. Bose Fellows, chosen this year from a pool of more than 100 applicants, receive up to $500,000 over three years of research.  

“That is the promise of the Bose Fellowship, to help bold new ideas become realities, and I’m deeply grateful to the Bose family for making all of it possible,” Reif concluded.

Sheila Kennedy & Michael Strano: Seeking light from an unexpected source

Engineer Michael Strano and architect Sheila Kennedy are combining their expertise to develop the ultimate “green” energy technology: They are using nanotechnology to build plants that can provide lighting for buildings and cities.

“Plants are already well adapted for the outdoor environment. They self-repair, they already exist in the places where we would like lamps to function, they live and persist through weather events, they access their own water, and they do all of this autonomously. They're not on a power grid and produce and store their own fuel,” Strano explains. “In my laboratory, we've been asking the question of whether living plants could be the starting point of advanced technology.”

The team is developing a technique that uses four nanoparticles — tiny particles the size of the natural building blocks of a plant — to intercept a chemical pathway the plant uses to make adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, and divert some of this fuel to make the plant luminesce. “These plants are not going to be searchlights or floodlights, but we've calculated that they can have a level of brightness and duration that will serve many important applications,” Strano says.

“Really what we're talking about is a new form of living illumination infrastructure, which could involve many different species of wild-growing plants: single plants, plants aggregated, plants delivered and integrated into the built environment in new ways that are entirely different from the electrical grid paradigm,” Kennedy adds.

Realizing that it would be difficult to secure traditional funding for a project that combines nanotechnology, plant biology, architecture and urban design in such an unprecedented way, Strano and Kennedy looked to Bose. “The Bose is a unique and rare opportunity that MIT has for impactful thinking and the development of new ideas that are both completely logical and mind-blowing at the same time,” Kennedy says.

Extract from story originally published December 14, 2017 by MIT Resource Development for MIT News.

Image: Illumination of a book (“Paradise Lost,” by John Milton) with the nanobionic light-emitting plants (two 3.5-week-old watercress plants). The book and the light-emitting watercress plants were placed in front of a reflective paper to increase the influence from the light emitting plants to the book pages. Image credit: Seon-Yeong Kwak