Every day, innovators propel the world forward with their problem-solving designs, endless creativity and novel solutions. As we move into 2022, we have our eyes on 16 different innovators from nine projects. These groundbreakers are experts in their fields—which range from social justice to biology to artificial intelligence—and they are drumming up new ways to push the envelope.
Mapping Fungi with Toby Kiers and Colin Averill
Most plant species form a beneficial relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, which grow on their roots. In exchange for nutrients absorbed from the soil, plants provide fungi with fixed carbon. This relationship is incredibly important because fungal networks sequester carbon, move nutrients around, support biodiversity and form the base for healthy soils. But they're under threat: at this rate, 90 percent of Earth's soil will degrade in less than 30 years.
As important as fungal networks are, they are often left out of conservation and climate plans. To address this problem a team of scientists announced a massive undertaking in early 2021: to map the Earth's fungal networks. The initiative, called the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), was founded by Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Colin Averill, a microbial ecologist at ETH Zürich.
"Protecting underground fungal networks begins with mapping them," the pair communicated via email. "The ultimate aim is to partner with local conservation organizations to advocate for the creation of 'conservation corridors' for belowground fungal networks."
To achieve this goal, Kiers, Averill and their collaborators are building the ultimate map. It'll help scientists understand how climate change affects mycorrhizal communities and zero in on regions that need the most attention, such as those threatened by deforestation or agriculture.
Utilizing their own network of researchers and local communities across the globe, SPUN will collect and analyze thousands of fungal samples to help them "stitch ecosystems together, kilometer by kilometer" and layer remotely sensed data, like temperature and vegetation. SPUN's goal is to collect 10,000 fungal DNA samples from around the world over the next 18 months with a focus on threatened and underexplored regions.
"This massive global sampling effort—coupled with machine learning—allows SPUN to create open-source maps of the Earth’s fungal networks. These maps will become a global resource, analogous to maps of global vegetation, climate patterns and ocean currents," Kiers and Averill say.
Opening Doors to Indigenous Health Care Workers with Victor A. Lopez-Carmen
Victor A. Lopez-Carmen—whose name is Waokiya Mani in the Dakota language and Machil in Yaqui—comes from a long line of healers. His great grandfather, Ohiyesa, was also known as Dr. Charles Eastman, the first Native American man to graduate from a U.S. medical school. Lopez-Carmen's grandmother was a midwife, and his mother went back to college while he was in high school to become a nurse.
"Their passion for healing really rubbed off on me," he says. When Lopez-Carmen graduates from Harvard Medical School in 2023, he will be the first male doctor enrolled in his tribe, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. He is also a co-founder and director of Translations for our Nations, an initiative launched during the pandemic to translate Covid-19 information into more than 40 Indigenous languages, making life-saving information more accessible.
"I come from a family of Indigenous rights activists, and they were always taking me with them in their work with Indigenous leaders across the world to improve life for the young ones and future generations," he says.
In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Lopez-Carmen wrote that American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but only 0.4 percent of physicians. Furthermore, Native Americans "have higher than average rates of 15 of the 16 leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke," he wrote.
Lopez-Carmen is one of only two Indigenous students in his medical class, and he's determined to increase representation in the medical field and drastically improve Indigenous health care. This summer, he'll launch the first session of the Ohiyesa Premedical Program—a pathway program at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital that introduces interested Indigenous students to a number of medical specialties. The program will select students from Indigenous tribal colleges and community colleges, and they'll spend three weeks gaining clinical experience in Boston.
Part of the Ohiyesa Premedical Program's goal is to break down barriers to entry for Indigenous students. Since "Native American and Alaskan Natives face huge systemic disparities that lead to disproportionately higher rates of poverty and access to underfunded school systems," applications will not ask for test scores, résumés or transcripts, Lopez-Carmen says.
"We are relying on [students'] demonstrated passion and interest in contributing to the health of Indigenous Peoples," he says. "We are confident that by opening up this opportunity for Native tribal and community college students, the medical field will be better off."
Reinventing Breastmilk with Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger
In 2009, Leila Strickland found herself struggling to breastfeed her son. "I felt a lot of dissonance when I eventually needed to supplement with formula," she says. "I was grateful for a product that could fill my baby's tummy and help him grow, but I was distraught about my low milk supply."
After Strickland, a biologist, had a similar experience a few years later when her daughter was born, she partnered up with food scientist Michelle Egger to develop BIOMILQ—the world's first cell-cultured breastmilk, which is produced in a lab instead of the body.
To make the milk, BIOMILQ, the company the pair co-founded in 2020, grows mammary cells in flasks and then places them in bioreactors. These bioreactors are designed to mimic breasts' physiology. The cells receive a supply of nutrients—like they would from the bloodstream if they were in a breast—and then secrete milk, which is then collected. With further development, BIOMILQ expects to closely replicate the components of breastmilk and its nutritional profile, which will be more complete than the formulation of traditional baby formula, though they acknowledge that some features of breastmilk—such as antibodies and the microbiome—cannot be incorporated in their product.
Breastfeeding is one of the best ways to raise healthy babies, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in four infants is breastfed for the recommended six months. This can be due to "low milk production, medical reasons, incompatible workplaces, or the ongoing stigma around breastfeeding in public," BIOMILQ writes. "Parents and caregivers are left with suboptimal choices, which is why we’re developing an option that doesn’t force a trade-off between babies’ nutrition and mothers’ wellbeing."
With new funding and recent breakthroughs, BIOMILQ is planning to scale up its capabilities and manufacturing capacity in the new year as they work towards a market-ready product.
Predicting Wildfires with Prisha Shroff
In 2020, California experienced its worst fire season on record. While Prisha Shroff was driving with her family near Los Angeles, she watched the blazes through the car window.
"After I witnessed this fire, I arrived back at home only to turn on the news. I heard about the Australian and Amazon wildfires and how the same effects of the Los Angeles fire were happening at a bigger scale. This really proved to me that this is a global problem and there is a need for a solution that can prevent these devastating wildfires," she says.
Shroff started researching solutions but learned that most wildfire fighting measures focus on detection and suppression instead of prevention. Inspired, Shroff created a system designed to prevent wildfires, which earned her the Lemelson Award for Invention in the Broadcom MASTERS, a science and engineering competition for middle school students.
Her artificial intelligence-based system predicts areas that are vulnerable to wildfires based on real-time data such as temperature, soil moisture, precipitation and wind. If an area is high risk, the system can alert fire agencies and even deploy a drone carrying flame retardant. It is 98.6 percent accurate at estimating where wildfires can ignite, she says.
At 15 years old, Shroff is the youngest innovator on our list. This year, she'll work on improving her A.I. model by adding millions of wildfire data points. She is also working with researchers at Arizona State University to develop a drone deployment system, since the drone she has now is a prototype and cannot carry and spray flame retardant yet.
Designing Energy-Saving Windows with Doris Sung
In the United States, buildings account for about 40 percent of all energy use, and heating and air conditioning makes up a 12 percent slice of that. If we could minimize how much sunlight heats up buildings through windows—and therefore lower air conditioning usage—it would be better for the planet. Unfortunately, current solutions, like Low-E glass, act like giant sunglasses and can disrupt sleep cycles and productivity, Doris Sung, an architect at the University of Southern California and co-founder of TBM Designs, says. In response to this problem, Sung, a Cooper Hewitt 2021 National Design Award winner, designed the InVert™ Self-Shading Window, which is composed of strands of fluttery pieces of a bendable metal.
"When the sun is directly hitting the pieces inside the window, they flip to block the sun from heating the interior. This effect shades the building from the sun, prevents solar heat gain and reduces the need for air conditioning," she says.
The windows reduce air-conditioning usage by 25 percent and don't require any energy or any controls to operate—just the sun's rays. "For every 12-story building that uses InVert™, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by approximately 360 metric tons of CO2," Sung says.
In February, an exhibit featuring InVert™ technology—called sm[ART]box—will open on California State University, Long Beach's campus; and another installation for a housing project in southern Los Angeles will open later in the year, too. Over the next couple of years, InVert™ technology will make its way across the nation—to a skylight for the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport and a luxury store.
Leveling the Playing Field with Omar Salem, David Deneher and Tim Farrelly
While perusing the internet, soccer fan Omar Salem came across viral videos of visually impaired people watching soccer games. He learned that 43 percent of visually impaired people in the United Kingdom are fans of the sport, and they watch games by having somebody narrate the details or model the game. But Salem wanted "to develop a better way for visually impaired fans to enjoy the game, without having to rely on commentary or a friend," he says.
Alongside classmates at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland, David Deneher and Tim Farrelly, Salem co-founded Field Of Vision with a goal to make soccer more immersive and inclusive. Cameras installed around a soccer stadium with Field Of Visions' A.I. software on them transmit information about the match to a portable, iPad-sized device. The gadget has a tactile outline of a soccer field's lines and a "ball," which is a magnetic piece that the user places a finger on. The data transmitted to the device moves the piece around the board, mirroring the ball's movement on the field. Haptic feedback adds more layers of information, such as who has the ball, which is communicated through a specific vibration on one part of the device. "The data reaches the device in the user’s hands 0.5 seconds after it occurs in the real world," Farrelly says, allowing fans to watch the game in real-time.
The team's goal is to make Field Of Vision as immersive as possible by incorporating details like how fast the ball moves, when someone is tackled or the trajectory of the players. Consulting with visually impaired soccer fans was crucial to the design process, and many of the features emerged from those conversations, Deneher says.
Field Of Vision is already being piloted at the Bohemian Football Club in Dublin. This year, the team will test their latest prototype in matches across Ireland and the U.K., and they hope it will be ready to make its World Cup debut this summer in Qatar.
Transcribing Police Data with Devshi Mehrotra and Leslie Jones-Dove
In 2019, University of Chicago computer science students Devshi Mehrotra and Leslie Jones-Dove partnered up for a final project. Given that they were both involved in the community and had studied up on the history and impacts of policing and mass incarceration, they decided to focus their tech project on those issues. They conceived the idea for JusticeText—a software that automatically generates transcripts for videos, jail calls, body camera footage and more to help public defenders analyze data more efficiently.
By interviewing public defenders, the duo learned that over the last few years, their offices have been drowning in audio and video data—such as those from body cameras or interrogation videos. While the federal government funds new technologies for police to use, there is little invested in developing systems to analyze all that data, Mehrotra says.
"What we realized is that on the public defender side, that's leading to major, major problems… well over 80 percent of criminal cases involve some form of video. But public defenders simply don't have the bandwidth to go through hours and hours of this footage," she says. "A lot of that data is either sitting there being underutilized or taking a very long time to actually be reviewed. All the while, low-income defendants are sitting in jail before they even have had the chance to receive due process."
After graduating in 2019, Mehrotra and Jones-Dove wanted to see JusticeText through. "As young technologists, and particularly as young technologists of color, [we had] the ability to make an outsized impact if we just chose to pursue this project further," Mehrotra says. They committed to JusticeText full-time, Mehrotra as the CEO and Jones-Dove as the Chief Technology Officer.
JusticeText spent most of 2021 securing their first government contracts and entering hundreds of public defenders into the system. They currently have contracts with 16 public defender's offices across seven states. In 2022, they hope to sign at least 25 more offices—and in turn, help more people who are dependent on publicly financed attorneys.
Celebrating Nollywood with Iké Udé
On February 5, photographer Iké Udé's exhibit Nollywood Portraits will open at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. After three decades away from his homeland of Nigeria, Udé returned in 2014 to photograph some of the greatest stars in the country's bustling film industry, known as Nollywood.
In this collection of portraits, Udé makes a statement about African identity and beauty through vibrant, bold photographs of actors, producers and directors. They are dressed in glamorous clothing, adorned in dazzling jewelry and regally posed in decorative rooms.
"With these works of portraiture, Udé complements the discourse on the representation of Africans in cinema, from colonial domination and inferior stereotypes to one of intellect and creative agency in telling our own stories," the Lagos Photo Festival wrote about his exhibit, which has been touring around the world.
These portraits are "the perfect vehicle and subject to employ in order to make a profound all-encompassing, universal introduction to the African representation," Udé says. He's hesitant to share his own interpretations of the exhibit; he says it's up to the audience to impose meaning on the art. "Readings are invariably subjective, informed and fraught with one's prejudices, sympathies, subjectivities, psychosis, cultural baggage and even other unmentionables," he says.
Printing a More Perfect World with J. Richard Gott, Dave Goldberg and Robert J. Vanderbei
Creating a completely accurate 2-D map of the world has proven to be an impossible feat. Some maps blow continents way out of proportion; others misleadingly split the world in half at the international date line and put Hawaii on one side and Japan on the other, as if the two islands aren't only half an ocean apart.
But in early 2021 a team of researchers revealed the most accurate map of the world yet. It emerged from a collaboration between J. Richard Gott, an astrophysicist at Princeton University; Dave Goldberg, a cosmologist at Drexel University; and Robert J. Vanderbei, a mathematician at Princeton University.
Imagine taking a globe and smushing its spherical form until it lay flat—that's the Gott-Goldberg-Vanderbei Projection. It's a two-sided map shaped like a vinyl record, with the equator as the record's rim.
"The North Pole is at the center of one side and the South Pole is at the center of the other side, with the equator running around the edge of the map," Gott says. "Africa and South America are continuous from one side of the map to the other, draped over the equatorial edge like clothes hanging on a clothesline."
In 2007, Goldberg and Gott introduced a system to score the accuracy of maps based on a set of metrics; the lower the score, the better the map. The famous Mercator projection—the one often found in classrooms across the U.S.—earned a score of 8.296. The flat map that previously held the highest score, the oval-like Winkel Tripel projection (which the National Geographic Society adopted as its standard map), has a score of 4.563. But the new, double-sided map has a nearly perfect score of 0.881.
Not only is this printable map the most accurate, but it shows the Earth and all its colors as seen from space. It's also interactive, allowing people to explore more dynamically than with a one-sided map.
In 2022, Gott, Goldberg and Vanderbei are hoping to partner with distributors to get the map in more people's hands. They're also brainstorming new ideas for double-sided maps, possibly of other planets or Earth in different epochs.