More TEDMED 2020 Speakers Announced


We are thrilled to share another round of impressive speakers for TEDMED 2020 this coming March 2-4. These revolutionary thinkers are shaking up the status quo, from transforming how we care for our society’s most vulnerable populations to shifting our perceptions on aging and death, to using AI and crowdsourcing to revolutionize patient diagnosis. We’ll be fascinated by the possibilities of the bio-imaging revolution and discuss the art and the science behind a new platform focused on driving innovation that works toward preventing the next pandemic. The range of topics and ideas shared will inspire us all. You can learn more about the speakers and their groundbreaking work here.

Look out for another speaker announcement coming soon! Don’t miss your chance to register for TEDMED 2020 at our special Early Bird rate. Hope to see you there.

Q & A with Daniel Streicker

TEDMED: In your 2018 TEDMED Talk, you impart the importance of trying to stop pandemics before they start. You posit one way to begin to do this is to find patterns and test out new solutions for “everyday killer viruses” that can jump from animals to people, like rabies, but are not necessarily pandemics. What led you to choose to study rabies over another virus?

Daniel Streicker: In short, I followed the data and it led to rabies. Just consider the numbers— whereas many viruses jump into people or domestic animals only every few years or every few decades, rabies is transmitted from wild animals into new species every single day, probably hundreds of times over and governments around the world routinely carry out diagnostics on these cases. That means we get a high-resolution glimpse into the host jumping process: which hosts are involved, where it happens and when. The other thing that struck me about rabies was that we already knew so much about its basic biology. The decades of work done before me meant that I didn’t need to waste much time working out the fundamentals and could jump straight into what for me were the most exciting questions about anticipating and blocking transmission between species.

Photo Credit: Daniel Streicker

TM: Your research took you to the Peruvian Amazon to study rabies in vampire bats. You mention mudslides, power outages and stomach bugs among the challenges you encountered. What was the most difficult part of working in the field?

DS: I never worried too much about the uncontrollable things like getting sick or natural disasters. It was the things I thought I could control, but couldn’t and the things that seemed straightforward, but weren’t, that pushed me to the limit. In the first two years of the project in Peru, I tried to pack much more in than was humanly possible. Every time a key person arrived late, or our transportation didn’t show up, or bats were mysteriously difficult to catch, the realization that the day was lost stressed me out to no end. My solution was to work harder on less and less sleep. Looking back, I’m surprised the field team didn’t mutiny. After about 6 months, I remember walking down a street in Lima feeling like a sleep-deprived zombie, and suddenly realizing that no matter how much planning and wishful thinking I did, things would almost always go wrong in ways that I couldn’t predict. The only solution was to give myself a few extra weeks on both ends of every trip and go with the flow. That seems blindingly obvious now, but it took a lot of pain and frustration for me to get there.

Photo Credit: Daniel Streicker

TM: What impact has your research had on the communities you worked in that were facing a high prevalence of rabies transmittal?

DS: My longer term vision of preventing human and animal rabies by vaccinating bats is still a ways off, but I believe the road to getting there does provide tangible benefits. We have already made some progress with models that forecast rabies risk so this can potentially enable anticipatory vaccination before outbreaks begin, which would save lives. Beyond that, the nature of the work means we get exceptional access to remote communities in the Andes and Amazon that are typically underserved with respect to health access and education. This provides constant opportunities to talk to communities about the research we are doing and what actions they can take now to protect themselves and their animals (for example, using bed nets to prevent human bites or vaccinating livestock). I’d also like to think seeing us capture, handle and collect samples from mysterious animals like bats inspires some natural curiosity in younger generations and might even let them see science as a career possibility.

Photo Credit: Daniel Streicker (Goat with bat bite wound seen in upper left)

TM: You shared that you and your team have used genomics to forecast outbreaks and are working on an edible self-spreading vaccine that can “get rid of viruses at their source before they have a chance to jump to people”. What other creative or innovative tactics have you and your team employed in your efforts?

DS: One of my favorite things about science is that you occasionally get the chance to chase unconventional ideas. One of those was a recent project where a few colleagues and I became convinced that it might be possible to use machine learning to mine the genome sequences of viruses to predict what host they came from. This was a major challenge since when new viruses emerge, it’s almost always from a non-human animal, but it can take years or even decades of experiments and surveillance to find the culprit and while all that research is happening, the disease is free to emerge again. Although there’s still a lot of work to do in this area, we ended up developing algorithms published in Science that when provided, just a single viral genome can instantaneously predict which kinds of animals the virus came from. That effectively narrows the short list of animals for researchers to consider and in some cases could even guide how outbreaks are managed in real time to limit onward transmission.

TM: What do you see for the future of virus control/eradication?

DS: I think right now is an incredibly exciting time for disease control. We have technologies at our fingertips that just a few years ago were almost unimaginable. Transmissible vaccines are the example I discussed in my Talk, but other approaches like engineering pathogen resistance into hosts or using natural enemies or symbionts to control human pathogens like malaria or dengue within the mosquito vectors that transmit them are also taking off and show great promise. More and more the scientific question is not whether these tools work in the lab (we know they do), but how to apply them in the real world. That creates an interesting interdisciplinary challenge that will need to involve collaborations among the laboratory scientists developing the technologies, the field biologists who understand the natural systems, the epidemiologists who can project the outcomes on disease transmission, and the social scientists who can evaluate the economic costs and acceptability to the public. That last challenge is crucial since interventions in natural systems, particularly those involving genetic engineering of hosts or vaccines, are bound to be controversial. My view is that it’s vital to recognize in these situations that inaction costs lives. Rational, evidence-based assessment of the risks and benefits of these technologies will be increasingly important so we can actually realize the potential that new technologies have to transform human and animal health.

Introducing This Year’s Speakers


We are excited to begin sharing the speakers who will take the stage this coming March 2-4 in Boston, MA at TEDMED 2020. The first group of speakers we’re sharing is revolutionizing the way we think about health and enabling new ways to achieve a healthier humanity. You can learn more about the speakers and their fascinating work here.

We’ll be sharing more in the next few weeks, including this year’s session themes, so be sure to keep an eye out. You won’t want to miss this year’s event—register today!

Massive Science on Daniel Streicker

Massive Science is a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public. The team at Massive joined us at TEDMED 2018 and covered talks by various speakers including Daniel Streicker. Check out their coverage of Streicker’s 2018 TEDMED Talk below.

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Many of the world’s deadliest viruses didn’t originate in humans. Rabies, HIV, and Ebola are just three of the countless illnesses that have jumped from animals to humans. Known as zoonotic diseases, this kind of cross-species transmission is actually not an exception, but a norm. So in order to protect people from dangerous new diseases, we must first understand where and how people might be exposed in the first place.

Tracking the transmission of viruses across species is a monumental task. To do so, scientists conduct field research in far-flung places, often on multiple species—all hopefully without contracting diseases themselves. Take, for example, the deadly rabies virus, which is found in many animal species, including bats. Daniel Streicker is a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow who has been working with collaborators in Peru to track the spread of rabies. Streicker’s been traveling to different barns and caves across Peru and hoisting nets around the exits, capturing vampire bats in order to tag and sample them. For Streicker and his research team, understanding how rabies is transmitted by bats was the first step toward learning what viral and host characteristics impact disease transmission generally.

While we may be racing against fast-evolving viruses, there’s no doubt human ingenuity is playing defense.

Just as Streicker started this project in Peru, the region began battling a rabies outbreak. Vampire bats typically live south of the United States border with Mexico (at least for now), and are particularly problematic because of their feeding habits: Since they bite other animals to feed, they’re “the perfect vector for this disease,” says Striecker.

Uwe Schmidt

Streicker and his colleagues have been collecting DNA and RNA sequences from vampire bats, as well as other environmental DNA.

While strategies to contain rabies transmission from dogs and bats are well established in North America, Latin America still suffers from widespread outbreaks. The numbers of cases have decreased, but many thousands of animals in Latin America still die of rabies every year. Especially in rural areas, which have limited public health infrastructure, the prevalence of the virus makes it dangerous for humans and animals alike. For farmers in particular, rabid bats are a constant fear. If a rabies outbreak from bats reaches their lands, livestock infections pose not only a health risk, but a problem for their pocketbook. “It doesn’t kill off thousands of livestock at once,” Streicker says, but cumulatively outbreaks are still a substantial public threat.

The researchers have learned that male bats are largely to blame for the virus’ spread, and that bat culling, a strategy used to reduce rabies transmission, may in fact, hurt the effort to stop rabies virus.

Streicker and his colleagues have been collecting DNA and RNA sequences from vampire bats, as well as other environmental DNA. By tracing and comparing the variations in these sequences, Streicker and his collaborators have learned more about how the rabies virus has moved around Peru. Their phylogenetic analysis works like this: Imagine 100 people start in the center of town for a bar crawl. Groups of people head in the directions of their favorite stops. At the end of the night, by comparing who went to which bar, you have an idea of who drank together. The variation within the sequences Streicker collects from DNA and RNA samples provides the same information about the rabies virus and bat populations. We now know, for example, how far the virus can travel in a year, and what areas may be most at risk. The researchers have learned that male bats are largely to blame for the virus’ spread, and that bat culling, a strategy used to reduce rabies transmission, may in fact, hurt the effort to stop rabies virus, since possibly infected bats typically disperse to new areas after populations are culled

To minimize public health risks, Streicker emphasizes the need to “control rabies in the bats themselves.” Luckily, a United States Geologic Survey researcher, Tonie Rocke has been studying bats in captivity to develop an innovative vaccine. Unlike normal vaccines, which would be unfeasible to deliver to wild populations, Rocke’s invention can be transmitted directly from bat to bat through skin contact. Combined with Streicker’s research, the scientists are hoping to target at-risk populations, like bats who live near a known outbreak. While these strategies may reduce outbreaks within five years, Streicker’s ultimate goal is a long-term solution. “It would be nice to have something to target elimination, more than just localized prevention.”

The insights these scientists are gleaning about rabies transmission may also be useful in understanding other diseases. Streicker, for example, recently published a bold theory about Ebola virus. He was curious if the Ebola virus was now evolving quickly as it spread among primates, reasoning that as the virus replicated within different hosts, it would essentially self-optimize in each. Could researchers use this virus evolution as clues to which animal host new outbreaks sprang from? If so, researchers could learn critical information during early stages of epidemics, helping prevent people’s exposure.

Pictured: Ebola virus particles. NIAID / Flickr

Improving our epidemiological toolkits is important because the future of pandemics doesn’t look great.

In the paper, published in Science, Streicker and his collaborators gathered hundreds of viral sequences, and then used machine learning algorithms to predict what animal host the viruses came from. These machine learning models were able to make predictions with 72 percent accuracy. Next, Streicker and his team hope to improve the model by testing its results in the field, but it’s already a notable step towards being able to predict and respond to Ebola outbreaks. During pandemics, the ability to run genetic sequences from samples through such a model could quickly narrow down potential hosts. Such a tool would benefit many neglected diseases, including Lassa virus, and other devastating illnesses.

Improving our epidemiological toolkits is important because the future of pandemics doesn’t look great. Responding to disease outbreaks requires a complex combination of local, national, and global efforts. Being able to warn a neighboring community of a potential rabies outbreak, intelligently inoculate at-risk bat populations, or predict the host animal of a deadly new virus would give public health officials a critical headstart in combating outbreaks.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Researchers are sampling and sequencing diverse viruses across the globe.

As researchers sample and sequence diverse viruses across the globe, their insights can have a direct impact on response plans for pandemics. This is precisely the goal of the Global Virome Project (GVP). Although the international effort is in early stages, an initial project called PREDICT is collecting samples from over 30 countries. The collection of these samples provides efforts like Streicker’s more data to help predict virus behavior. “Everywhere we work, the teams are a resource for public health networks, strengthening capacity for secure and safe field surveillance, as well as laboratory training.” explains Dr. Jonna Mazet, global lead of PREDICT and member of the GVP steering committee.

While we may be racing against fast-evolving viruses, there’s no doubt human ingenuity is playing defense.


About the author: Joshua Peters is a PhD student in Biological Engineering at MIT. Around two billion people in the world are infected with a microscopic bug called Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. Despite this, only a fraction develop tuberculosis. And a fraction of those infected – almost 5,000 a day – die. He puts on Stranger Things-esque protection equipment and probes these bacteria to ask, what allows them bacteria to win this tug-of-war? To understand this variation, he looks at how both human and bacteria cells change on a genetic level in response to each other, as a member of the Blainey Lab, located in the Broad Institute, and Bryson Lab, located in the Ragon Institute and MIT.

Q & A with Robotics Designer Kathleen O’Donnell

TEDMED: You mentioned in your Talk that as you became more involved in medical robotics, you realized there are many non-traditional approaches to robotics. The exosuit, a soft wearable robot being a great example of a non-traditional robot. Are there any other innovative designs in the field of medical robotics that stand out to you, or that you have worked on recently?

Kathleen O’Donnell: There are tons of interesting robotics approaches out there! I recently read an article in Nature about a system that consists of individual robotic elements that come together and behave cooperatively to achieve locomotion and other complex tasks, similar to the way that the cells of living organisms work together to achieve complex functional behaviors. This example really helps to highlight the massive diversity in robotic approaches today.

TM: New technologies often require a lot of time and money to create. Are these things the biggest barriers to creating new innovations in medical robotics?

KO: One reason that it takes so much time and money to create new innovations in medical robotics is that designs need to be iteratively tested in representative use scenarios to properly develop and validate the designs. Then you still have to begin your summative clinical and engineering testing to ensure that everything is performing safely, effectively, and in compliance with relevant regulatory agencies (such as the FDA). One thing that has really helped to accelerate the development of the exosuit is that from the very early stages, we always were able to involve stroke patients and physical therapists in the device testing, through an IRB-approved protocol. This “early and often” approach to testing with actual users of the device (both the therapists and the patients) helped to ensure that each iteration of development was helping to move us closer to our end goals and allowed us to course-correct before we got too far off track.

TM: The exosuit was adapted to address mobility issues stemming from neurological disease. Do you think soft wearable robots like the exosuit will be used in a more widespread way in the future?

KO: Absolutely! The Exosuit for Stroke Rehabilitation that I discussed during my Talk recently achieved several major milestones, including completion of a clinical trial and achievement of FDA clearance and CE marking, meaning that the exosuit is now commercially available for clinics in the US and Europe to purchase for use in their stroke rehabilitation programs, making this the first (of many) widespread clinical applications for soft exosuits. Furthermore, the technology which comprises the core functionality of the soft exosuit is essentially a platform technology that can be adapted to a wide variety of applications. By leveraging the knowledge gained from developing the exosuit for stroke rehabilitation, we can more quickly develop systems to support additional joints, such as the hip or the knee, as well as additional patient populations, such as MS, Parkinson Disease, or TBI, for example. It’s really exciting to see how the first exosuits have lead to such a robust pipeline of innovation.

Photo Credit: Wyss Institute

TM: In your Talk, you placed a great emphasis on the fact that the focus is always the people the technology is helping, do you think your experience as a patient plays a part in this mindset?

KO: I think my experience as a patient has certainly helped me to empathize with the patients we work with, and to understand why walking ability is such a powerful component of patients’ quality of life. However, even without this experience, I think it would be impossible to work as closely as we do with patients and therapists and not develop a deep sense of empathy and understanding for the challenges they encounter on a daily basis. The teams I have worked on have always placed an emphasis on going the extra mile to “get out of the lab” and better understand the people who are using these robots and understand what they are trying to achieve, and it is this mindset which continues to be instrumental to informing the design of exosuits throughout their evolution.

Q & A with Digital Age Artist Marilène Oliver

TEDMED: In your 2018 TEDMED Talk and exhibit, your work depicted a digitized future. What have you learned through the process of creating this work?

Marilène Oliver: I would say that they also depict a digitised present: the majority of my daily life is spent creating and moving packets of data around and the fact that I can now be represented as a high-resolution scan dataset pretty much sums how I understand and know myself! Understanding and questioning how we are digitised – both our physical bodies and our digitized activities – is fascinating for me, as it offers powerful metaphors to think about what and who we are becoming in the digital age. Equally, finding the right processes and materials to creatively re-export and materialise that scan data has been very important. There is no question that transparent materials were best for making my early stacked sculptures, then I needed to work with neon materials so that certain features could be highlighted and tagged. Now I am working with virtual reality: material concerns could disappear completely. Reflecting on the choices that I make in order to create artworks made from scan data teaches me a lot about my relationship to digitisation.

TM: Your work has strong scientific elements in it. Have you always had an interest in science?

MO: My interest in science has grown as my work has developed. I soon realized when I started working with scan data that many of the possibilities of the technology were not available to me (both practically and poetically) as long as I didn’t understand the science behind it. I started by reading as much as I could and trying to teach myself but when I needed more structure and reliable content I applied to do a long distance MSc in Imaging at the University of Edinburgh. This has helped me greatly, not only to understand the actual science of imaging better, but also to understand the rigid structure and pressures of scientific research compared to artistic research, but there is so much I still don’t know and it feels impossible to keep up! I strongly believe in interdisciplinary research and now at the University of Alberta I have been able to bring together a fabulous team of radiologists, computer scientists, digital humanists and nurses. We are currently developing projects that will allow us to create virtual and augmented reality artworks which is very exciting.

TM: In your Talk you discuss the challenges using MRI data posed, such as it being slow to acquire and could not be reformatted, which led you to use CT scans for your muse Melanix. What other challenges did you encounter when creating your work using digitized bodies?

MO: As I explained briefly in my talk, one of the most challenging times for me was moving to Angola and waking up to the fact that Melanix was not only a medical dataset that I needed to think about as a creative resource and material, but also a symbol of first world privilege. Until moving to Angola, I had taken scan data more or less for granted, but working with Melanix in Angola where the majority of the population had little or no access to public healthcare, let alone the possibility to be scanned, caused me to radically rethink my practice and my relationship to data acquired to cure rich white people when there were still countries with endemic malaria and people still die of tetanus poisoning every day. Making art with medical data in Angola demanded I realize my position as a privileged white woman of colonial heritage, which ashamedly I hadn’t considered until that time. This technology and these concerns are far from global and digital privilege is a huge issue that threatens to exacerbate the disgusting inequalities in the world.

The ethics of data anonymization is also something I find problematic. I understand it in medical research, but when it is being used to create artworks, I question whether this is always the ‘right’ solution. I have made scores of artworks using the Melanix dataset yet I have no idea who the original subject of the scan is. I would hope the work I have made would please the original subject if she were to know about it, but as we learn more and more how the digital data we generate is used and abused by government and corporations and other individuals, I think there has to be better discussions and global agreements about the ethics of data ownership.

TM: What are you currently working on? What is your inspiration for this work?

MO: Since my talk, I have made two virtual reality artworks and sculptural installations using a new high-resolution MRI dataset acquired with researchers at the University of Alberta. Deep Connection is the first work we made using virtual reality and was inspired from experiences using the Body VR app which allows 3D medical scan datasets to be loaded into virtual reality space as a semi-transparent block of data.

Photo Courtesy of Marilène Oliver-“Deep Connection”

When the viewer enters the Deep Connection, they see a scanned body lying prone in mid-air. The user can walk around the body and inspect it, lie underneath it and walk through it. The user can put their head inside the body: dive inside and see its inner workings, its lungs, spine, brain. Using a virtual hand, they can then take hold of the figure’s outstretched hand, trigger a 4D dataset and see figure’s heart beat and lungs breathe. When the user lets go the hand, the heart stops beating and the lungs stop breathing. Deep Connection has an interactive soundscape made by Gary James Joynes made from recordings of the MRI scanner. When the user holds the figure’s hand a human voice sings a beautiful mourning song. The VR experience is part of a sculptural installation created using the same MRI data. The installation is comprised of a row of 3 sculptures of bodies into which the VR hardware is embedded/housed. The sensors are embedded in the chest of the outer two figures, and the inner figure holds the headset, controller and guards the workstation.

Programming Cures with Synthetic Biology

Tim Lu uses his extensive background in computer programming, electrical engineering and micrcobiology to engineer cells to act as living therapeutics. At TEDMED 2018, Tim Lu shared how his work in bioengineered medicine is enabling dynamic responses to disease in previously unseen ways. Watch his Talk, “Biological engineering—the nexus between computer programming and medicine” and read his post below to learn more about his pioneering work.


Ever since the human genome was decoded, we’ve gained considerable insights into the origins of disease. The biological programs encoded by the DNA inside our cells are highly interconnected, allowing them to orchestrate the complex activities of life. When these fine-tuned interconnections within cells and between cells go awry, disease results.

With an increasing understanding of these dysfunctional biological programs and their role in human illness, scientists are trying to develop new ways to cure disease, not simply keep it at bay. However, our current armamentarium of medicines is dominated by small-molecule drugs and biologics, such as antibodies and enzymes. Although these medicines have resulted in tremendous advancements in human health, they are fundamentally limited in their activity and are nowhere as sophisticated as the disease networks they are trying to address.

For example, these drugs distribute systemically throughout the body and are not easily activated (if more activity is needed) or suppressed (if side effects are encountered). In addition, these medicines often only target a single mechanism of action, which may be insufficient to cure diseases. The basic problem is that we are using static, simple, non-living medicines to treat indications that are inherently dynamic, multi-factorial and living.

Fortunately, while we’ve been decoding our DNA and the biological programs we’re born with, we’ve also been learning how to design DNA to create new programs in living cells. The engineering discipline of synthetic biology has the potential to create powerful new medicines that can match the complexity of disease with even more sophisticated therapeutic programs. These medicines are called (1) cell therapies, where living cells are reprogrammed with artificial DNA programs and delivered into patients, and (2) gene therapies, where the artificial DNA programs are administered directly into patients, typically using a virus or a chemical carrier.

We’re already seeing these living cell and gene therapies have an impact on certain diseases, such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). For example, a new class of medicines called CAR-T cells are made by extracting T cells from ALL patients, engineering them to kill any cells expressing a protein called CD19, and then reinfusing the living drug into the body, wherein the CAR-T cells eliminate CD19-positive leukemia cells, as well as normal B cells. These CD19-targeting CAR-T cells have achieved tremendous success in the clinic, with more than 80 percent complete response rates in some studies.

However, we’re only scratching the surface of what is possible with current cell and gene therapies. For example, CAR-T cells don’t work particularly well against solid tumors, such as ovarian, lung and liver cancers, or difficult-to-treat liquid tumors, such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Solid tumors have evolved multiple ways to block T cells from being active within the tumors, so that CAR-T cells can’t exert maximal killing activity against cancer cells.

More sophisticated genetic programming through synthetic biology can help overcome this challenge. For example, CAR-T cells can be engineered not only to kill cancer cells, but also to secrete multiple additional drugs that counteract solid tumor defenses in a multi-factorial fashion. Combination therapy encoded within a living cell therapy can address the complexity of cancer disease networks and significantly improve treatment effectiveness.

Moreover, diseases, such as AML, are highly heterogeneous, so that it’s difficult to find a single antigen target that can discriminate between cancer and healthy cells. Antibodies and CAR-T cells that only go after a single target can generate significant side effects by also killing healthy cells. This isn’t a major problem with CD19-targeting therapies in ALL, because people can survive ablation of all their healthy B cells (which make antibodies) by being supplemented with antibody infusions. However, when the healthy tissues that are inadvertently killed are irreplaceable — such as stem cells, cardiac tissue or lung cells — these side effects can cause substantial toxicity.

Fortunately, we no longer have to be satisfied with drugs that only rely on a single protein to distinguish between diseased and healthy cells. Leveraging synthetic biology, we can design cell therapies to sense multiple disease biomarkers and to respond only when a specific combination of biomarkers is encountered. For example, CAR-T cells can be outfitted with a “NOT gate” program to kill tumors when they express biomarker A but NOT biomarker B, and to prevent killing of healthy tissues that express both biomarker A and B. By doing so, we can significantly increase the safety margin of these drugs and enable enhanced potency against cancer cells.

These biological programs are just a few examples of how programming sophisticated living drugs can improve therapeutic outcomes. The emerging synthetic biology toolbox also enables living medicines that can be turned on or off by administering orally dosed FDA-approved small molecule drugs. Such medicines can be narrowly targeted against specific cell types or tissues, and that can even adapt their activity to dynamic and evolving diseases. A new era of programmable drugs is coming, and has the promise to deliver cures that match the complexity of human diseases.

Massive Science on Kathleen O’Donnell

Massive Science is a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public. The team at Massive joined us at TEDMED 2018 and covered talks by various speakers including Kathleen O’Donnell. Check out their coverage of O’Donnell’s 2018 TEDMED Talk below.


Photo Courtesy of Massive Science

There’s been a bevy of heavy metal, superpower-imbuing robotic suits in pop culture — think Halo, Avatar, or Iron Man. In fact, these fictional portrayals were what inspired researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute in the Biodesign Lab to develop a new exosuit.

Initially, the goal of the exosuit project was to develop military applications. (Not surprising, considering the project was funded primarily through DARPA.) The researchers combined traditional robotics with flexible fabrics and lightweight parts, resulting in a soft, wearable design.

The scientists realized this technology could also be a medical tool. Kathleen O’Donnell, a staff industrial designer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, met with clinicians and quickly honed in on stroke patients, who often suffer from weakness and loss of control in one side of their body. O’Donnell’s team envisioned designing a suit that could be attached around the waist and calf, to help stroke patients balance their strides, reducing the effort it takes to walk. Volunteers were soon recruited as study participants, and a team of roboticists, industrial designers, control engineers, and physical therapists began designing, testing, and iterating the suit.

The team quickly faced several major challenges. “We have algorithms that measure the way you walk and try to predict when are you taking a step so that we can time the assistance,” explains O’Donnell. This kind of responsive assistance was easy to control in soldiers, since they tend to walk with symmetric, regularly-paced strides. But stroke patients tend to walk with different compensations and irregularities.

“Her foot looked so much more confident, so much more stable. She was able to stand up straighter.”

“Everybody walks a little bit differently after their stroke. They have different compensations they may use. One person might hike their hip up as they’re walking. One person may swing their leg around as they’re walking,” says O’Donnell. “We had to understand how to ignore [the compensations] to some extent, but still get the information that we needed about their gait to time the assistance with their particular gait pattern.” This personalized capability required the team to build adaptable algorithms that adjust the suit’s required assistance with every step. The resulting exosuit never imposes how to walk — it just helps the patient walk naturally.

Another major difference between soldiers and stroke patients is body type. While it’s easier to design for the typically fit physiques of soldiers, stroke patients’ physiques vary widely. Since the suits need to attach closely to a patient’s body, individual body types can significantly change the design of the suit. O’Donnell explains, “From an apparel design side, understanding both the range and mechanisms we were using to attach [the exosuit] as securely as possible to the patients became more challenging.”

With a diverse group of patients, the team built a toolbox of strategies to individually fit an exosuit to every user. During one testing and recording with a patient, O’Donnell describes the patient’s transformation as dramatic. “Her foot looked so much more confident, so much more stable. She was able to stand up straighter.” While she acknowledges that fitting the suit required time, even without any optimization, the change in patients was frequently instantaneous.

From the beginning, O’Donnell and her team focused on patient volunteers who had experienced strokes and could immediately benefit from the exosuit. “It has been such an amazing process to work with all these volunteers from the community,” says O’Donnell. “Our first volunteer is still one of the volunteers who comes in, five years later.” Licensing the technology from the Wyss Institute, O’Donnell guided the transition of the exosuit and began to manage clinical trials in the hopes of making the suit available to the millions of stroke patients in the United States today.

“We are starting in stroke, but we could potentially see suits for MS or suits for Parkinson’s.”

So far, the exosuit has been tested on more than 40 patients. Of course, there will be potential challenges in scaling the technology. “We have made as much of an effort as possible to get as diverse a range of patients as we can. That includes body sizes and types, walking speeds, [and the] types of assistive devices they use,” O’Donnell says.

Giving freedom back to stroke patients is just the beginning. O’Donnell says the exosuit could help many other kinds of patients too. Other injuries or disorders are also on their minds. “We are starting in stroke, but we could potentially see suits for MS [multiple sclerosis] or suits for Parkinson’s.” With the ability to quickly alter and control the assistance, the exosuits could help people undergoing physical therapy by providing assistance when needed and taking it away to help rebuild strength. On the other side of the spectrum, the exosuit could be used at home to provide general, consistent assistance. Luckily, being made out of fabric helps reduce the overall cost of the exosuit. The possibilities for exosuits in medicine will be exciting to watch.


About the author: Joshua Peters is a PhD student in Biological Engineering at MIT. Around two billion people in the world are infected with a microscopic bug called Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. Despite this, only a fraction develop tuberculosis. And a fraction of those infected – almost 5,000 a day – die. He puts on Stranger Things-esque protection equipment and probes these bacteria to ask, what allows them bacteria to win this tug-of-war? To understand this variation, he looks at how both human and bacteria cells change on a genetic level in response to each other, as a member of the Blainey Lab, located in the Broad Institute, and Bryson Lab, located in the Ragon Institute and MIT.

Christine Nieves on Community

After Hurricane Maria decimated the physical and material infrastructure of the island of Puerto Rico, Christine Nieves began to mobilize what could not be destroyed, the community. At TEDMED 2018, Christine shared the importance of community and how she and her team are finding ways to support healing from individual and collective trauma. Watch her Talk, “Why Community is our best chance for survival—a lesson post-Hurricane Maria” and read her blog post below to learn about her new venture, Emerge Puerto Rico (EmergePR) and why she is working to pioneer community-based climate change education and leadership.

Growing up, I didn’t see Puerto Rican figures as examples of leaders, visionaries, or doers that I could call role models. Through the radio, news, neighborhood and social gatherings, I learned that we just weren’t capable of solving our problems, running our island, or frankly, being accountable for anything. “Without America,” I heard repeated over and over again, “we will not have jobs, or food, or funds for public services.” I also learned that nothing good could ever happen in Puerto Rico; so why even try? This idea became an unquestionable truth for me. When I left Puerto Rico for college, I carried a mix of conspicuous pride for being Puertorriqueña and a disdain towards Puerto Rico, my mainland. People in Puerto Rico, I heard around me, were lazy, and just wanted things done easy, and then we had corruption throughout government and corporations making it difficult to be on the island if you were a regular hard-working family. Life for everyone around me was a constant survival struggle. I didn’t feel I had options, so I left the island, and promised to never come back.

Photo Credit: Christine Nieves

Why I returned and how my view of Puerto Rico changed forever is what I go into detail in my talk. And while Hurricane Maria was my catalyst for this chapter, just this summer we had another Hurricane-level event: a historic million people 12-day protest that culminated in our highest-ranking elected official being forced to resign. Just like after Hurricane Maria, this summer the message was crystal clear: we, Puerto Ricans, have been believing a story about ourselves that is not true and when everything collapsed, when our leaders failed us, our true nature emerged. What we accomplished this summer and after Maria is more than a lesson about Puerto Ricans, it is a sobering truth about the greatness waiting on the other side of liberation. Liberation from our own ideas about our history, humanity and what we are capable of.

Volunteer board in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria.
Photo Credit: Ricardo Alcaraz

On Sept 20, 2017, the world changed for me, and for the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the archipelago. Our home was flooded and my husband and I lost almost all of our furniture, clothes, books, technology—we’re still recovering! —but out of this devastation, we decided we needed to do something. And to our surprise, that something would turn into Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana (PAM): a fully community-driven disaster response and recovery effort: kitchen, aid distribution, food delivery, arts, culture and recreation activities for kids, and a full transformation towards renewable energy sources, rain-water catchment systems, filters installed in natural water sources through the mountain, even solar-powered Wi-Fi and satellite communication. While in the midst of doing, we spent a lot of time reflecting on this question: How can our community (a so-called marginalized community) support human adaptation to a changing climate?

Now we face a unifying threat for humanity – our changing climate. And because Puerto Rico is an archipelago, our islands are living the future, NOW. Through Emerge Puerto Rico (EmergePR), our new venture, we are ringing a clarion call for harnessing wonder, awe and imagination as the birthplace of powerful community-based adaptations to climate change. In so doing we are moving beyond from fear, shame and guilt, towards the concrete examples that challenge our notions of what so-called marginal communities are capable of.

Puerto Rico, as it turns out, is bursting with audacious endeavors that are getting world-wide acclaim and our role at EmergePR is to make it impossible to ignore initiatives like PAM that every day become stronger all over our islands. When ALL of our attention and energy is placed on the inspiring history-bending and counter-narrative examples of human greatness we can begin to transform our future.

If you haven’t been to Puerto Rico, come see for yourself.

Massive Science on Christine Nieves

Massive Science is a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public. The team at Massive joined us at TEDMED 2018 and covered talks by various speakers including Christine Nieves. Check out their coverage of Nieves’ TEDMED 2018 Talk below.


As storms become more severe and more frequent, people around the world will need to get better at recovering from disasters. After Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, for example, Puerto Ricans had to become experts in disaster recovery overnight. One such newly-minted authority is Christine Nieves, who has a vision of apoyo mutuo, or mutual aid.

Nieves left Puerto Rico when she was 18, after spending years feeling trapped on the island. She finished her education at UPenn and Oxford, but while living in the mainland United States, she realized that she didn’t have a sense of community. So she decided to return home, just a few months before Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Nieves remembers telling her mother, “I’m ready! We’re going to be fine”

Nieves now lives in a small, mountainous community in Puerto Rico called Mariana. She wasn’t concerned when she heard that a hurricane was on its way. “We didn’t know what was coming,” she said. Nieves remembers telling her mother, “I’m ready! We’re going to be fine,” — but the storm was much more destructive than expected.

After the worst of the hurricane was over, Nieves and her neighbors were in rough shape: Like most of the island’s towns and cities, there was no electricity, no running water, and no cell phone service. People in Mariana knew that because of their isolated location, it would take days for government aid to reach them, so they took matters into their own hands.

Image by erikawg from Pixabay

Nieves and her partner decided to start a community kitchen. They got permission to use an industrial kitchen space. Finding food and cooks was a little bit harder than they anticipated, at least at first. Immediately after the hurricane, it was difficult or impossible to call anyone, so they had to go door to door to contact people. “When everything collapsed, there was a different system left,” Nieves said. That effort made Nieves realize how reliant they had been on phones and the internet. “We need to really strengthen and understand how our infrastructure is fragile. But at the same time, we need to create systems that are not fragile, and not tech-related,” Nieves said.

She asked people, “What do you love to do? Do you want to come and join us?” Nieves ended up with a small team of local residents who had been hit hard by the storm, but still wanted to help. People contributed whatever they could, from beans to vegetables to bags of rice. Young people brought hot food to elderly neighbors. By the end of the week, the community kitchen was feeding 300 people every day. Even more importantly, everyone had a job to do.

Community-based mutual support is totally different from how disaster recovery is usually approached.

In some ways, this may sound like an idealistic community of preppers. But instead of an individual person building up a cache of canned food and guns so they can hole up and wait out a disaster, Nieves says that mutual support brings communities together.

Community-based mutual support is totally different from how disaster recovery is usually approached. In many places, including parts of Puerto Rico, disaster survivors eat government-provided MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) and wait in long lines to receive water or charge their phone. That’s not to say they don’t want to do anything, but sometimes all there is to do is wait.

In Nieves’ model, mutual aid allows community members play an active role in the survival and rebuilding process. It’s not a new concept, but it’s one that was necessary in Mariana: Government officials didn’t reach Nieves’ community until 12 days after the storm subsided.

Nieves pointed out that once help arrived, there was an additional layer of complication: many of her neighbors don’t read English, so they were unable to understand the directions on the MREs that were distributed. They ended up eating them cold or without knowing what they contained.

Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash

So, even after some aid started coming in, the community kitchen continued. “Being able to eat something vibrant that was cooked with love transmits hope. We saw the difference between big operations that were giving you just enough food so that you wouldn’t die, and the abuelas [grandmothers] who were going to give you a big plate so that you would be full and nourished for the whole day, with a smile.”

Mariana spent nine months without electricity from the grid, and six without water. Even now, it isn’t back to anything resembling normal. “There are a lot of blackouts, so there is a constant state of not knowing if you’re going to need gas for your generator. You don’t know if your food is going to rot. If you depend on electricity for oxygen, dialysis, anything … good luck,” Nieves told me.

Still, Nieves has hope that the lessons her community learned after Maria will help other towns in the future. “We believe that this is a model, or at least a series of ingredients, that every community needs to have if they’re going to survive,” she told me. “Communities are our best chance at adapting. Together we might be able to create more.”

If you’d like to support mutual aid in Puerto Rico, you can make a donation here and read more about Nieves’ work here.


About the author: Gabriela Serrato Marks is a PhD candidate in marine geology at MIT. She uses stalagmites to create past climate records that provide context for future climate change.