Sophia Chen: It’s our duty to make the world better through empathy, patience, and respect

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Sophia Chen, a fifth-year senior double majoring in mechanical engineering and art and design, learned about MIT D-Lab when she was a Florida middle schooler. She drove with her family from their home in Clearwater to Tampa to an MIT informational open house for prospective students. There, she heard about a moringa seed press that had been developed by D-Lab students. Those students, Kwami Williams ’12 and Emily Cunningham (a cross-registered Harvard University student), went on to found MoringaConnect with a goal of increasing Ghanaian farmer incomes. Over the past 12 years, the company has done just that, sometimes by a factor of 10 or more, by selling to wholesalers and establishing their own line of moringa skin and hair care products, as well as nutritional supplements and teas.

“I remember getting chills,” says Sophia. “I was so in awe. MIT had always been my dream college growing up, but hearing this particular story truly cemented that dream. I even talked about D-Lab during my admissions interview. Once I came to MIT, I knew I had to take a D-Lab class — and now, at the end of my five years, I’ve taken four.”

Taking four D-Lab classes during her undergraduate years may make Sophia exceptional, though not unusual. Of the nearly 4,000 enrollments in D-Lab classes over the past 22 years, as many as 20 percent took at least two classes, and many take three or more by the time the graduate. For Sophia, her D-Lab classes were a logical progression that both confirmed and expanded her career goals in global medicine.

Centering the role of project community partners

Sophia’s first D-Lab class was 2.722J / EC.720 (D-Lab: Design). Like all D-Lab classes, D-Lab: Design is project-based and centers the knowledge and contributions of each project’s community partner. Her team worked with a group in Uganda called Safe Water Harvesters on a project aimed at creating a solar-powered atmospheric water harvester using desiccants. They focused on early research and development for the desiccant technology by running tests for vapor absorption. Safe Water Harvesters designed the parameters and goals of the project and collaborated with the students remotely throughout the semester.

Safe Water Harvesters’ role in the project was key to the project’s success. “At D-Lab, I learned the importance of understanding that solutions in international development must come from the voices and needs of people whom the intervention is trying to serve,” she says. “Some of the first questions we were taught to ask are ‘what materials and manufacturing processes are available?’ and ‘how is this technology going to be maintained by the community?’”

The link between water access and gender inequity

Electing to join the water harvesting project in Uganda was no accident. The previous summer, Sophia had interned with a startup targeting the spread of cholera in developing areas by engineering a new type of rapid detection technology that would sample from users’ local water sources. From there, she joined Professor Amos Winter’s Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab as an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program student and worked on a point-of-use desalination unit for households in India. 

Taking EC.715 (D-Lab: Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) was a logical next step for Sophia. “This class was life-changing,” she says. “I was already passionate about clean water access and global resource equity, but I quickly discovered the complexity of WASH not just as an issue of poverty but as an issue of gender.” She joined a project spearheaded by a classmate from Nepal, which aimed to address the social taboos surrounding menstruation among Nepalese schoolgirls.

“This class and project helped me realize that water insecurity and gender inequality — especially gender-based violence — ​are highly intertwined,” comments Sophia. This plays out in a variety of ways. Where there is poor sanitation infrastructure in schools, girls often miss classes or drop out altogether when menstruating. And where water is scarce, women and girls often walk miles to collect water to accommodate daily drinking, cooking, and hygiene needs. During this trek, they are vulnerable to assault and the pressure to engage in transactional sex at water access points.

“It became clear to me that women are disproportionately affected by water insecurity, and that water is key to understanding women’s empowerment,” comments Sophia, “and that I wanted to keep learning about the field of development and how it intersects with gender!”

So, in fall 2023, Sophia took both 11.025/EC.701 (D-Lab: Development) and WGS.277/EC.718 (D-Lab: Gender and Development). In D-Lab: Development, her team worked with Tatirano, a nongovernmental organization in Madagascar, to develop a vapor-condensing chamber for a water desalination system, a prototype they were able to test and iterate in Madagascar at the end of the semester.

Getting out into the world through D-Lab fieldwork

“Fieldwork with D-Lab is an eye-opening experience that anyone could benefit from,” says Sophia. “It’s easy to get lost in the MIT and tech bubble. But there’s a whole world out there with people who live such different lives than many of us, and we can learn even more from them than we can from our psets.”

For Sophia’s D-Lab: Gender and Development class, she worked with the Society Empowerment Project in Kenya, ultimately traveling there during MIT’s Independent Activities Period last January. In Kenya, she worked with her team to run a workshop with teen parents to identify risk factors prior to pregnancy and postpartum challenges, in order to then ideate and develop solutions such as social programs. 

“Through my fieldwork in Kenya and Madagascar,” says Sophia, “it became clear how important it is to create community-based solutions that are led and maintained by community members. Solutions need community input, leadership, and trust. Ultimately, this is the only way to have long-lasting, high-impact, sustainable change. One of my D-Lab trip leaders said that you cannot import solutions. I hope all engineers recognize the significance of this statement. It is our duty as engineers and scientists to make the world a better place while carrying values of empathy, patience, and respect.”

Pursuing passion and purpose at the intersection of medicine, technology, and policy

After graduation in June, Sophia will be traveling to South Africa through MISTI Africa to help with a clinical trial and community outreach. She then intends to pursue a master’s in global health and apply to medical school, with the goal of working in global health at the intersection of medicine, technology, and policy.

“It is no understatement to say that D-Lab has played a central role in helping me discover what I’m passionate about and what my purpose is in life,” she says. “I hope to dedicate my career towards solving global health inequity and gender inequality.” ​

Source: Security -


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