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    MIT community in 2022: A year in review

    In 2022, MIT returned to a bit of normalcy after the challenge of Covid-19 began to subside. The Institute prepared to bid farewell to its president and later announced his successor; announced five flagship projects in a new competition aimed at tackling climate’s greatest challenges; made new commitments toward ensuring support for diverse voices; and celebrated the reopening of a reimagined MIT Museum — as well as a Hollywood blockbuster featuring scenes from campus. Here are some of the top stories in the MIT community this year.

    Presidential transition

    In February, MIT President L. Rafael Reif announced that he planned to step down at the end of 2022. In more than 10 years as president, Reif guided MIT through a period of dynamic growth, greatly enhancing its global stature and magnetism. At the conclusion of his term at the end of this month, Reif will take a sabbatical, then return to the faculty of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In September, Reif expressed his gratitude to the MIT community at an Institute-wide dance celebration, and he was honored with a special MIT Dome lighting earlier this month.

    After an extensive presidential search, Sally Kornbluth, a cell biologist and the current provost of Duke University, was announced in October as MIT’s 18th president. Following an introduction to MIT that included a press conference, welcoming event, and community celebration, Kornbluth will assume the MIT presidency on Jan. 1, 2023.

    In other administrative transitions: Cynthia Barnhart was appointed provost after Martin Schmidt stepped down to become president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Sanjay Sarma stepped down as vice president for open learning after nine years in the role; professors Brent Ryan and Anne White were named associate provosts, while White was also named associate vice president for research administration; and Agustín Rayo was named dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

    Climate Grand Challenges

    MIT announced five flagship projects in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects focus on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis. Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition that yielded 27 finalist projects, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    CHIPS and Science Act

    President Reif and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber were among several MIT representatives to witness President Biden’s signing of the $52 billion “CHIPS and Science” bill into law in August. Reif helped shape aspects of the bill and was a vocal advocate for it among university and government officials, while Zuber served on two government science advisory boards during the bill’s gestation and consideration. Earlier in the year, MIT.nano hosted U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, while MIT researchers released a key report on U.S. microelectronics research and manufacturing.

    MIT Morningside Academy for Design

    Supported by a $100 million founding gift, the MIT Morningside Academy for Design launched as a major interdisciplinary center that aims to build on the Institute’s leadership in design-focused education. Housed in the School of Architecture and Planning, the academy provides a hub that will encourage design work at MIT to grow and cross disciplines among engineering, science, management, computing, architecture, urban planning, and the arts.

    Reports of the Institute

    A number of key Institute reports and announcements were released in 2022. They include: an announcement of the future of gift acceptance for MIT: an announcement of priority MIT investments; a new MIT Values Statement; a renewed commitment to Indigenous scholarship and community; the Strategic Action Plan for Belonging, Achievement, and Composition; a report on MIT’s engagement with China; a report of the Working Group on Reimagining Public Safety at MIT; a report of the Indigenous Working Group; and a report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Arts, Culture, and DEI.

    Nobel Prizes

    MIT affiliates were well-represented among new and recent Nobel laureates who took part in the first in-person Nobel Prize ceremony since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. MIT-affiliated winners for 2022 included Ben Bernanke PhD ’79, K. Barry Sharpless, and Carolyn Bertozzi. Winners in attendance from 2020 and 2021 included Professor Joshua Angrist, David Julius ’77, and Andrea Ghez ’87.

    New MIT Museum

    A reimagined MIT Museum opened this fall in a new 56,000-square-foot space in the heart of Cambridge’s Kendall Square. The museum invites visitors to explore the Institute’s innovations in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — and to take part in that work with hands-on learning labs and maker spaces, interactive exhibits, and venues to discuss the impact of science and technology on society.

    “Wakanda Forever”

    In November, the Institute Office of Communications and the Division of Student Life hosted a special screening of Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The MIT campus had been used as a filming location in summer 2021, as one of the film’s characters, Riri Williams (also known as Ironheart), is portrayed as a student at the Institute.

    In-person Commencement returns

    After two years of online celebrations due to Covid-19, MIT Commencement returned to Killian Court at the end of May. World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81 delivered the Commencement address, while poet Kealoha Wong ’99 spoke at a special ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021.

    Students win distinguished fellowships

    As in previous years, MIT students continued to shine. This year, exceptional undergraduates were awarded Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell, Rhodes, and Schwarzman scholarships.

    Remembering those we’ve lost

    Among MIT community members who died this year were Robert Balluffi, Louis Braida, Ashton Carter, Tom Eagar, Dick Eckaus, Octavian-Eugen Ganea, Peter Griffith, Patrick Hale, Frank Sidney Jones, Nonabah Lane, Leo Marx, Bruce Montgomery, Joel Moses, Brian Sousa Jr., Mohamed Magdi Taha, John Tirman, Richard Wurtman, and Markus Zahn.

    In case you missed it:

    Additional top community stories of 2022 included MIT students dominating the 82nd Putnam Mathematical Competition, an update on MIT’s reinstating the SAT/ACT requirement for admissions, a new mathematics program for Ukrainian students and refugees, a roundup of new books from MIT authors, the renaming of the MIT.nano building, an announcement of winners of this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, the new MIT Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, and MIT students winning the 45th International Collegiate Programming Contest for the first time in 44 years. More

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    Machinery of the state

    In Mai Hassan’s studies of Kenya, she documented the emergence of a sprawling administrative network officially billed as encouraging economic development, overseeing the population, and bolstering democracy. But Hassan’s field interviews and archival research revealed a more sinister purpose for the hundreds of administrative and security offices dotting the nation: “They were there to do the presidents’ bidding, which often involved coercing their own countrymen.”

    This research served as a catalyst for Hassan, who joined MIT as an associate professor of political science in July, to investigate what she calls the “politicized management of bureaucracy and the state.” She set out to “understand the motivations, capacities, and roles of people administering state programs and social functions,” she says. “I realized the state is not a faceless being, but instead comprised of bureaucrats carrying out functions on behalf of the state and the regime that runs it.”

    Today, Hassan’s portfolio encompasses not just the bureaucratic state but democratization efforts in Kenya and elsewhere in the East Africa region, including her native Sudan. Her research highlights the difficulties of democratization. “I’m finding that the conditions under which people come together for overthrowing an autocratic regime really matter, because those conditions may actually impede a nation from achieving democracy,” she says.

    A coordinated bureaucracy

    Hassan’s academic engagement with the state’s administrative machinery began during graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in government. While working with a community trash and sanitation program in some Kenyan Maasai communities, Hassan recalls “shepherding myself from office to office, meeting different bureaucrats to obtain the same approvals but for different jurisdictions.” The Kenyan state had recently set up hundreds of new local administrative units, motivated by what it claimed was the need for greater efficiency. But to Hassan’s eyes, “the administrative network was not well organized, seemed costly to maintain, and seemed to hinder — not bolster — development,” she says. What then, she wondered, was “the political logic behind such state restructuring?”

    Hassan began researching this bureaucratic transformation of Kenya, speaking with administrators in communities large and small who were charged with handling the business of the state. These studies yielded a wealth of findings for her dissertation, and for multiple journals.

    But upon finishing this tranche of research, Hassan realized that it was insufficient simply to study the structure of the state. “Understanding the role of new administrative structures for politics, development, and governance fundamentally requires that we understand who the government has put in charge of them,” she says. Among her insights:

    “The president’s office knows a lot of these administrators, and thinks about their strengths, limitations, and fit within a community,” says Hassan. Some administrators served the purposes of the central government by setting up water irrigation projects or building a new school. But in other villages, the state chose administrators who could act “much more coercively, ignoring development needs, throwing youth who supported the opposition into jail, and spending resources exclusively on policing.”

    Hassan’s work showed that in communities characterized by strong political opposition, “the local administration was always more coercive, regardless of an elected or autocratic president,” she says. Notably, the tenures of such officials proved shorter than those of their peers. “Once administrators get to know a community — going to church and the market with residents — it’s hard to coerce them,” explains Hassan.

    These short tenures come with costs, she notes: “Spending significant time in a station is useful for development, because you know exactly whom to hire if you want to build a school or get something done efficiently.” Politicizing these assignments undermines efforts at delivery of services and, more broadly, economic improvement nationwide. “Regimes that are more invested in retaining power must devote resources to establishing and maintaining control, resources that could otherwise be used for development and the welfare of citizens,” she says.

    Hassan wove together her research covering three presidents over a 50-year period, in the book, “Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya” (2020, Cambridge University Press), named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020.

    Sudanese roots

    The role of the state in fulfilling the needs of its citizens has long fascinated Hassan. Her grandfather, who had served as Sudan’s ambassador to the USSR, talked to her about the advantages of a centralized government “that allocated resources to reduce inequality,” she says.

    Politics often dominated the conversation in gatherings of Hassan’s family and friends. Her parents immigrated to northern Virginia when she was very young, and many relatives joined them, part of a steady flow of Sudanese fleeing political turmoil and oppression.

    “A lot of people had expected more from the Sudanese state after independence and didn’t get it,” she says. “People had hopes for what the government could and should do.”

    Hassan’s Sudanese roots and ongoing connection to the Sudanese community have shaped her academic interests and goals. At the University of Virginia, she gravitated toward history and economics classes. But it was her time at the Ralph Bunche Summer institute that perhaps proved most pivotal in her journey. This five-week intensive program is offered by the American Political Science Association to introduce underrepresented undergraduate students to doctoral studies. “It was really compelling in this program to think rigorously about all the political ideas I’d heard as I was growing up, and find ways to challenge some assertions empirically,” she says.

    Regime change and civil society

    At Harvard, Hassan first set out to focus on Sudan for her doctoral program. “There wasn’t much scholarship on the country, and what there was lacked rigor,” she says. “That was something that needed to change.” But she decided to postpone this goal after realizing that she might be vulnerable as a student conducting field research there. She landed instead in Kenya, where she honed her interviewing and data collection skills.

    Today, empowered by her prior work, she has returned to Sudan. “I felt that the popular uprising in Sudan and ousting of the Islamist regime in 2019 should be documented and analyzed,” she says. “It was incredible that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, acted collectively to uproot a dictator, in the face of brutal violence from the state.”But “democracy is still uncertain there,” says Hassan. The broad coalition behind regime change “doesn’t know how to govern because different people and different sectors of society have different ideas about what democratic Sudan should look like,” she says. “Overthrowing an autocratic regime and having civil society come together to figure out what’s going to replace it require different things, and it’s unclear if a movement that accomplishes the first is well-suited to do the second.”

    Hassan believes that in order to create lasting democratization, “you need the hard work of building organizations, developing ways in which members learn to compromise among themselves, and make decisions and rules for how to move forward.”

    Hassan is enjoying the fall semester and teaching courses on autocracy and authoritarian regimes. She is excited as well about developing her work on African efforts at democratic mobilization in a political science department she describes as “policy-forward.”

    Over time, she hopes to connect with Institute scholars in the hard sciences to think about other challenges these nations are facing, such as climate change. “It’s really hot in Sudan, and it may be one of the first countries to become completely uninhabitable,” she says. “I’d like to explore strategies for growing crops differently or managing the exceedingly scarce resource of water, and figure out what kind of political discussions will be necessary to implement any changes. It is really critical to think about these problems in an interdisciplinary way.” More

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    Nonabah Lane, Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous ties to MIT, dies at 46

    Nonabah Lane, a Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous MIT ties to MIT, passed away in October. She was 46.

    Lane had recently been an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow; MIT Solve 2019 Indigenous Communities Fellow; Department of Urban Studies and Planning guest lecturer and community partner; community partner with the PKG Public Service Center, Terrascope, and D-Lab; and a speaker at this year’s MIT Energy Week.

    Lane was a passionate sustainability specialist with experience spearheading successful environmental civic science projects focused in agriculture, water science, and energy. Committed to mitigating water pollutants and environmental hazards in tribal communities, she held extensive knowledge of environmental policy and Indigenous water rights. 

    Lane’s clans were Ta’neezahnii (Tangled People), born for Tł’izíłání (Manygoats People), and her maternal grandfathers are the Kiiyaa’aanii (Towering House People), and paternal grandfathers are Bįįh Bitoo’nii (Deer Spring People).

    Lane was a member of the Navajo Nation, Nenahnezad Chapter. At Navajo Power, she worked as the lead developer for solar and energy storage projects to benefit tribal communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal nations in New Mexico. Prior to joining Navajo Power, Lane co-founded Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm that teaches Navajo culture through traditional farming and bilingual education. Lane also launched a campaign to partner with local Navajo schools and tribal colleges to create their own water-testing capabilities and translate data into information to local farmers.

    “I had the opportunity to collaborate closely with Nonabah on a range of initiatives she was championing on energy, food, justice, water, Indigenous leadership, youth STEM, and more. She was innovative, entrepreneurial, inclusive, heartfelt, and positively impacted MIT on every visit to campus. She articulated important things that needed saying and expanded people’s thinking constantly. We will all miss her insights and teamwork,” says Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, MIT Corporation life member; third U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to the president in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and founder and CEO of shift7.

    In March 2019, Lane and her family — parents Gloria and Harry and brother Bruce — welcomed students and staff of the MIT Terrascope first-year learning community to their farm, where they taught unique, hands-on lessons about traditional Diné farming and spirituality. She then continued to collaborate with Terrascope, helping staff and students develop community-based work with partners in Navajo Nation. 

    Terrascope associate director and lecturer Ari Epstein says, “Nonabah was an inspiring person and a remarkable collaborator; she had a talent for connecting and communicating across disciplinary, organizational, and cultural differences, and she was generous with her expertise and knowledge. We will miss her very much.”

    Lane came to MIT in May 2019 for the MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship and Solve at MIT event, representing Navajo Ethno-Agriculture with her mother, Gloria Lane, and brother, Bruce Lane, and later serving as a Fellow Leadership Group member. 

    “Nonabah was an incredible individual who worked tirelessly to better all of her communities, whether it was back home on the Navajo Nation, here at MIT Solve, or supporting her family and friends,” says Alex Amouyel, executive director of MIT Solve. “More than that, Nonabah was a passionate mentor and caring friend of so many, carefully tending the next generation of Indigenous innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers. Her loss will be felt deeply by the MIT community, and her legacy of heartfelt service will not be forgotten.”

    She continued to be heavily involved across the MIT campus — named as a 2019 Media Lab Director’s Fellow, leading a workshop at the 2020 MIT Media Lab Festival of Learning on modernizing Navajo foods using traditional food science and cultural narrative, speaking at the 2022 MIT Energy Conference “Accelerating the Clean Energy Transition,” and taking part in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) innovation weekly co-working groups for Covid-response related innovations. 

    “My CBA colleagues and I enjoyed working with Nonabah on rapid-prototyping for the Covid response, on expanding access to digital fabrication, and on ambitious proposals for connecting emerging technology with Indigenous knowledge,” says Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.

    Nonabah also guest lectured for the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning’s Indigenous Environmental Planning class in Spring 2022. Professors Lawrence Susskind and Gabriella Carolini and teaching assistant Dení López led the class in cooperation with Elizabeth Rule, Chickasaw Nation member and professor at American University. 

    Carolini shares, on behalf of Susskind and the class, “During this time, our teaching team and students from a broad range of fields at MIT had the deep honor of learning from and with the inimitable Nonabah Lane. Nonabah was a dedicated and critical partner to our class, representing in this instance Navajo Power — but of course, also so much more. Her broad experiences and knowledge — working with fellow Navajo members on energy and agriculture sovereignty, as well as in advancing entrepreneurship and innovation — reflected the urgency Nonabah saw in meeting the challenges and opportunities for sustainable and equitable futures in Navajo nation and beyond. She was a pure life force, running on all fires, and brought to our class a dedicated drive to educate, learn, and extend our reference points beyond current knowledge frontiers.” 

    Three MIT students — junior Isabella Gandara, Alexander Gerszten ’22, and Paul Picciano MS ’22 — who worked closely with Lane on a project with Navajo Power, recalled how she shared herself with them in so many ways, through her truly exceptional work ethic, stories about herself and her family, and the care and thought that she put into her ventures. They noted there was always something new to feel inspired by when in her presence. 

    “The PKG Public Service Center mourns the passing of Nonabah Lane. Navajo Ethno-Agriculture is a valued PKG Center partner that offers MIT undergraduate students the opportunity to support community-led projects with the Diné Community on Navajo Nation. Nonabah inspired students to examine broad social and technical issues that impact Indigenous communities in Navajo Nation and beyond, in many cases leaving an indelible mark on their personal and professional paths,” says Jill S. Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Public Service Center.

    Lane was a Sequoyah Fellow of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and remained actively engaged in the AISES community by mentoring young people interested in the fields of science, engineering, agriculture, and energy. Over the years, Lane collaborated with leaders across tribal lands and beyond on projects related to agriculture, energy, sustainable chemicals, and finance. Lane had an enormous positive impact on many through her accomplishments and also the countless meaningful connections she helped to form among people in diverse fields.

    Donations may be made to a memorial fund organized by Navajo Power, PBC in honor of Nonabah Lane, in support of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, the Native American nonprofit she co-founded and cared deeply for. More

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    Building better batteries, faster

    To help combat climate change, many car manufacturers are racing to add more electric vehicles in their lineups. But to convince prospective buyers, manufacturers need to improve how far these cars can go on a single charge. One of their main challenges? Figuring out how to make extremely powerful but lightweight batteries.

    Typically, however, it takes decades for scientists to thoroughly test new battery materials, says Pablo Leon, an MIT graduate student in materials science. To accelerate this process, Leon is developing a machine-learning tool for scientists to automate one of the most time-consuming, yet key, steps in evaluating battery materials.

    With his tool in hand, Leon plans to help search for new materials to enable the development of powerful and lightweight batteries. Such batteries would not only improve the range of EVs, but they could also unlock potential in other high-power systems, such as solar energy systems that continuously deliver power, even at night.

    From a young age, Leon knew he wanted to pursue a PhD, hoping to one day become a professor of engineering, like his father. Growing up in College Station, Texas, home to Texas A&M University, where his father worked, many of Leon’s friends also had parents who were professors or affiliated with the university. Meanwhile, his mom worked outside the university, as a family counselor in a neighboring city.

    In college, Leon followed in his father’s and older brother’s footsteps to become a mechanical engineer, earning his bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M. There, he learned how to model the behaviors of mechanical systems, such as a metal spring’s stiffness. But he wanted to delve deeper, down to the level of atoms, to understand exactly where these behaviors come from.

    So, when Leon applied to graduate school at MIT, he switched fields to materials science, hoping to satisfy his curiosity. But the transition to a different field was “a really hard process,” Leon says, as he rushed to catch up to his peers.

    To help with the transition, Leon sought out a congenial research advisor and found one in Rafael Gómez-Bombarelli, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Because he’s from Spain and my parents are Peruvian, there’s a cultural ease with the way we talk,” Leon says. According to Gómez-Bombarelli, sometimes the two of them even discuss research in Spanish — a “rare treat.” That connection has empowered Leon to freely brainstorm ideas or talk through concerns with his advisor, enabling him to make significant progress in his research.

    Leveraging machine learning to research battery materials

    Scientists investigating new battery materials generally use computer simulations to understand how different combinations of materials perform. These simulations act as virtual microscopes for batteries, zooming in to see how materials interact at an atomic level. With these details, scientists can understand why certain combinations do better, guiding their search for high-performing materials.

    But building accurate computer simulations is extremely time-intensive, taking years and sometimes even decades. “You need to know how every atom interacts with every other atom in your system,” Leon says. To create a computer model of these interactions, scientists first make a rough guess at a model using complex quantum mechanics calculations. They then compare the model with results from real-life experiments, manually tweaking different parts of the model, including the distances between atoms and the strength of chemical bonds, until the simulation matches real life.

    With well-studied battery materials, the simulation process is somewhat easier. Scientists can buy simulation software that includes pre-made models, Leon says, but these models often have errors and still require additional tweaking.

    To build accurate computer models more quickly, Leon is developing a machine-learning-based tool that can efficiently guide the trial-and-error process. “The hope with our machine learning framework is to not have to rely on proprietary models or do any hand-tuning,” he says. Leon has verified that for well-studied materials, his tool is as accurate as the manual method for building models.

    With this system, scientists will have a single, standardized approach for building accurate models in lieu of the patchwork of approaches currently in place, Leon says.

    Leon’s tool comes at an opportune time, when many scientists are investigating a new paradigm of batteries: solid-state batteries. Compared to traditional batteries, which contain liquid electrolytes, solid-state batteries are safer, lighter, and easier to manufacture. But creating versions of these batteries that are powerful enough for EVs or renewable energy storage is challenging.

    This is largely because in battery chemistry, ions dislike flowing through solids and instead prefer liquids, in which atoms are spaced further apart. Still, scientists believe that with the right combination of materials, solid-state batteries can provide enough electricity for high-power systems, such as EVs. 

    Leon plans to use his machine-learning tool to help look for good solid-state battery materials more quickly. After he finds some powerful candidates in simulations, he’ll work with other scientists to test out the new materials in real-world experiments.

    Helping students navigate graduate school

    To get to where he is today, doing exciting and impactful research, Leon credits his community of family and mentors. Because of his upbringing, Leon knew early on which steps he would need to take to get into graduate school and work toward becoming a professor. And he appreciates the privilege of his position, even more so as a Peruvian American, given that many Latino students are less likely to have access to the same resources. “I understand the academic pipeline in a way that I think a lot of minority groups in academia don’t,” he says.

    Now, Leon is helping prospective graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds navigate the pipeline through the DMSE Application Assistance Program. Each fall, he mentors applicants for the DMSE PhD program at MIT, providing feedback on their applications and resumes. The assistance program is student-run and separate from the admissions process.

    Knowing firsthand how invaluable mentorship is from his relationship with his advisor, Leon is also heavily involved in mentoring junior PhD students in his department. This past year, he served as the academic chair on his department’s graduate student organization, the Graduate Materials Council. With MIT still experiencing disruptions from Covid-19, Leon noticed a problem with student cohesiveness. “I realized that traditional [informal] modes of communication across [incoming class] years had been cut off,” he says, making it harder for junior students to get advice from their senior peers. “They didn’t have any community to fall back on.”

    To help fix this problem, Leon served as a go-to mentor for many junior students. He helped second-year PhD students prepare for their doctoral qualification exam, an often-stressful rite of passage. He also hosted seminars for first-year students to teach them how to make the most of their classes and help them acclimate to the department’s fast-paced classes. For fun, Leon organized an axe-throwing event to further facilitate student cameraderie.

    Leon’s efforts were met with success. Now, “newer students are building back the community,” he says, “so I feel like I can take a step back” from being academic chair. He will instead continue mentoring junior students through other programs within the department. He also plans to extend his community-building efforts among faculty and students, facilitating opportunities for students to find good mentors and work on impactful research. With these efforts, Leon hopes to help others along the academic pipeline that he’s become familiar with, journeying together over their PhDs. More

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    Bridging careers in aerospace manufacturing and fusion energy, with a focus on intentional inclusion

    “A big theme of my life has been focusing on intentional inclusion and how I can create environments where people can really bring their whole authentic selves to work,” says Joy Dunn ’08. As the vice president of operations at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinout working to achieve commercial fusion energy, Dunn looks for solutions to the world’s greatest climate challenges — while creating an open and equitable work environment where everyone can succeed.

    This theme has been cultivated throughout her professional and personal life, including as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum and as a board member at Out for Undergrad, an organization that works with LGBTQ+ college students to help them achieve their personal and professional goals. Through her careers both in aerospace and energy, Dunn has striven to instill a sense of equity and inclusion from the inside out.

    Developing a love for space

    Dunn’s childhood was shaped by space. “I was really inspired as a kid to be an astronaut,” she says, “and for me that never stopped.” Dunn’s parents — both of whom had careers in the aerospace industry — encouraged her from an early age to pursue her interests, from building model rockets to visiting the National Air and Space Museum to attending space camp. A large inspiration for this passion arose when she received a signed photo from Sally Ride — the first American woman in space — that read, “To Joy, reach for the stars.”

    As her interests continued to grow in middle school, she and her mom looked to see what it would take to become an astronaut, asking questions such as “what are the common career paths?” and “what schools did astronauts typically go to?” They quickly found that MIT was at the top of that list, and by seventh grade, Dunn had set her sights on the Institute. 

    After years of hard work, Dunn entered MIT in fall 2004 with a major in aeronautical and astronautical engineering (AeroAstro). At MIT, she remained fully committed to her passion while also expanding into other activities such as varsity softball, the MIT Undergraduate Association, and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.

    One of the highlights of Dunn’s college career was Unified Engineering, a year-long course required for all AeroAstro majors that provides a foundational knowledge of aerospace engineering — culminating in a team competition where students design and build remote-controlled planes to be pitted against each other. “My team actually got first place, which was very exciting,” she recalls. “And I honestly give a lot of that credit to our pilot. He did a very good job of not crashing!” In fact, that pilot was Warren Hoburg ’08, a former assistant professor in AeroAstro and current NASA astronaut training for a mission on the International Space Station.

    Pursuing her passion at SpaceX

    Dunn’s undergraduate experience culminated with an internship at the aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX in summer 2008. “It was by far my favorite internship of the ones that I had in college. I got to work on really hands-on projects and had the same amount of responsibility as a full-time employee,” she says.

    By the end of the internship, she was hired as a propulsion development engineer for the Dragon spacecraft, where she helped to build the thrusters for the first Dragon mission. Eventually, she transferred to the role of manufacturing engineer. “A lot of what I’ve done in my life is building things and looking for process improvements,” so it was a natural fit. From there, she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the senior manager of spacecraft manufacturing engineering, where she oversaw all the manufacturing, test, and integration engineers working on Dragon. “It was pretty incredible to go from building thrusters to building the whole vehicle,” she says.

    During her tenure, Dunn also co-founded SpaceX’s Women’s Network and its LGBT affinity group, Out and Allied. “It was about providing spaces for employees to get together and provide a sense of community,” she says. Through these groups, she helped start mentorship and community outreach programs, as well as helped grow the pipeline of women in leadership roles for the company.

    In spite of all her successes at SpaceX, she couldn’t help but think about what came next. “I had been at SpaceX for almost a decade and had these thoughts of, ‘do I want to do another tour of duty or look at doing something else?’ The main criteria I set for myself was to do something that is equally or more world-changing than SpaceX.”

    A pivot to fusion

    It was at this time in 2018 that Dunn received an email from a former mentor asking if she had heard about a fusion energy startup called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) that worked with the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “I didn’t know much about fusion at all,” she says. “I had heard about it as a science project that was still many, many years away as a viable energy source.”

    After learning more about the technology and company, “I was just like, ‘holy cow, this has the potential to be even more world-changing than what SpaceX is doing.’” She adds, “I decided that I wanted to spend my time and brainpower focusing on cleaning up the planet instead of getting off it.”

    After connecting with CFS CEO Bob Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, Dunn joined the company and returned to Cambridge as the head of manufacturing. While moving from the aerospace industry to fusion energy was a large shift, she said her first project — building a fusion-relevant, high-temperature superconducting magnet capable of achieving 20 tesla — tied back into her life of being a builder who likes to get her hands on things.

    Over the course of two years, she oversaw the production and scaling of the magnet manufacturing process. When she first came in, the magnets were being constructed in a time-consuming and manual way. “One of the things I’m most proud of from this project is teaching MIT research scientists how to think like manufacturing engineers,” she says. “It was a great symbiotic relationship. The MIT folks taught us the physics and science behind the magnets, and we came in to figure out how to make them into a more manufacturable product.”

    In September 2021, CFS tested this high-temperature superconducting magnet and achieved its goal of 20 tesla. This was a pivotal moment for the company that brought it one step closer to achieving its goal of producing net-positive fusion power. Now, CFS has begun work on a new campus in Devens, Massachusetts, to house their manufacturing operations and SPARC fusion device. Dunn plays a pivotal role in this expansion as well. In March 2021, she was promoted to the head of operations, which expanded her responsibilities beyond managing manufacturing to include facilities, construction, safety, and quality. “It’s been incredible to watch the campus grow from a pile of dirt … into full buildings.”

    In addition to the groundbreaking work, Dunn highlights the culture of inclusiveness as something that makes CFS stand apart to her. “One of the main reasons that drew me to CFS was hearing from the company founders about their thoughts on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how they wanted to make that a key focus for their company. That’s been so important in my career, and I’m really excited to see how much that’s valued at CFS.” The company has carried this out through programs such as Fusion Inclusion, an initiative that aims to build a strong and inclusive community from the inside out.

    Dunn stresses “the impact that fusion can have on our world and for addressing issues of environmental injustice through an equitable distribution of power and electricity.” Adding, “That’s a huge lever that we have. I’m excited to watch CFS grow and for us to make a really positive impact on the world in that way.”

    This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Living Climate Futures initiative showcases holistic approach to the climate crisis

    The sun shone bright and warm on the Dertouzos Amphitheater at the Stata Center this past Earth Day as a panel of Indigenous leaders from across the country talked about their experiences with climate activism and shared their natural world philosophies — a worldview that sees humanity as one with the rest of the Earth.

    “I was taught the natural world philosophies by those raised by precolonial individuals,” said Jay Julius W’tot Lhem of the Lummi tribe of the Pacific Northwest and founder and president of Se’Si’Le, an organization dedicated to reintroducing Indigenous spiritual law into the mainstream conversation about climate. Since his great-grandmother was born in 1888, he grew up “one hug away from pre-contact,” as he put it.

    Natural world philosophiesNatural world philosophies sit at the center of the Indigenous activism taking place all over the country, and they were a highlight of the Indigenous Earth Day panel — one part of a two-day symposium called Living Climate Futures. The events were hosted by the Anthropology and History sections and the Program on Science, Technology, and Society in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), in collaboration with the MIT Office of Sustainability and Project Indigenous MIT.

    “The Living Climate Futures initiative began from the recognition that the people who are living most closely with climate and environmental struggles and injustices are especially equipped to lead the way toward other ways of living in the world,” says Briana Meier, ACLS Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and an organizer of the event. “While much climate action is based in technology-driven policy, we recognize that solutions to climate change are often embedded within and produced in response to existing social systems of injustice and inequity.”

    On-the-ground experts from around the country spoke in a series of panels and discussions over the two days, sharing their stories and inspiring attendees to think differently about how to address the environmental crisis.

    Gathering experts

    The hope, according to faculty organizers, was that an event centered on such voices could create connections among activists and open the eyes of many to the human element of climate solutions.

    Over the years, many such solutions have overlooked the needs of the communities they are designed to help. Streams in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have been dammed to generate hydroelectric power — promoted as a green alternative to fossil fuel. But these same locations have long been sacred spots for Indigenous swimming rituals, said Ryan Emanuel (Lumbee), associate professor of hydrology at Duke University and a panelist in the Indigenous Earth Day event. Mitigating the environmental damage does not make up for the loss of sacred connection, he emphasized.

    To dig into such nuances, the organizers invited an intergenerational group of panelists to share successes with attendees.

    Transforming urban spaces

    In one panel, for example, urban farmers from Mansfield, Ohio, and Chelsea, Massachusetts, discussed the benefits of growing vegetables in cities.

    “Transforming urban spaces into farms provides not just healthy food, but a visible symbol of hope, a way for people to connect and grow food that reflects their cultures and homes, an economic development opportunity, and even a safe space for teens to hang out,” said Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability and an event organizer. “We also heard about the challenges — like the cost of real estate in Massachusetts.”

    Another panel highlighted the determined efforts of a group of students from George Washington High School in Southeast Chicago to derail a project to build a scrap metal recycling plant across the street from their school. “We’re at school eight hours a day,” said Gregory Miller, a junior at the school. “We refuse to live next door to a metals scrapyard.”

    The proposed plant was intended to replace something similar that had been shut down in a predominantly white neighborhood due to its many environmental violations. Southeast Chicago is more culturally diverse and has long suffered from industrial pollution and economic hardship, but the students fought the effort to further pollute their home — and won.

    “It was hard, the campaign,” said Destiny Vasquez. “But it was beautiful because the community came together. There is unity in our struggle.”

    Recovering a common heritage 

    Unity was also at the forefront of the discussion for the Indigenous Earth Day panel in the Stata Amphitheater. This portion of the Living Climate Futures event began with a greeting in the Navajo language from Alvin Harvey, PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics (Aero/Astro) and representative of the MIT American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the MIT Native American Student Association. The greeting identified all who came to the event as relatives.

    “Look at the relatives next to you, especially those trees,” he said, gesturing to the budding branches around the amphitheater. “They give you shelter, love … few other beings are willing to do that.”

    According to Julius, such reverence for nature is part of the Indigenous way of life, common across tribal backgrounds — and something all of humanity once had in common. “Somewhere along the line we all had Indigenous philosophies,” he said. “We all need an invitation back to that to understand we’re all part of the whole.”

    Understanding the oneness of all living things on earth helps people of Indigenous nations feel the distress of the earth when it is under attack, speakers said. Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth and an elder of the Lumbee tribe, discussed the trauma of having forests near her home in the southeastern United States clear-cut to provide wood chips to Europe.

    “They are devastating the lungs of the earth in North Carolina at a rate faster than in the Amazon,” she said. “You can almost hear the pain of the forest.”

    Small pictures of everyday life

    “People are experiencing a climate crisis that is global in really different ways in different places,” says Heather Paxson, head of MIT Anthropology and an event organizer. “What came out of these two days is a real, palpable sense of the power of listening to individual experience. Not because it gives us the big picture, but because it gives us the small picture.”

    Trinity Colón, one of the leaders of the group from George Washington High School, impressed on attendees that environmental justice is much more than an academic pursuit. “We’re not talking about climate change in the sense of statistics, infographics,” she said. “For us this is everyday life … [Future engineers and others training at MIT] should definitely take that into perspective, that these are real people really being affected by these injustices.”

    That call to action has already been felt by many at MIT.

    “I’ve been hearing from grad students lately, in engineering, saying, ‘I like thinking about these problems, but I don’t like where I’m being directed to use my intellectual capital, toward building more corporate wealth,’” said Kate Brown, professor of STS and an event organizer. “As an institution, we could move toward working not for, not to correct, but working with communities.”

    The world is what we’ve gotMIT senior Abdulazeez Mohammed Salim, an Aero/Astro major, says he was inspired by these conversations to get involved in urban farming initiatives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he plans to move after graduation.

    “We have a responsibility as part of the world around us, not as external observers, not as people removed and displaced from the world. And the world is not an experiment or a lab,” he says. “It’s what we’ve got. It’s who we are. It’s all that we’ve been and all we will be. That stuck with me; it resonated very deeply.”

    Salim also appreciated the reality check given by Bianca Bowman from GreenRoots Chelsea, who pointed out that success will not come quickly, and that sustained advocacy is critical.

    “Real, valuable change will not happen overnight, will not happen by just getting together a critical mass of people who are upset and concerned,” he said. “Because what we’re dealing with are large, interconnected, messy systems that will try to fight back and survive regardless of how we force them to adapt. And so, long term is really the only way forward. That’s the way we need to think of these struggles.” More

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    Finding her way to fusion

    “I catch myself startling people in public.”

    Zoe Fisher’s animated hands carry part of the conversation as she describes how her naturally loud and expressive laughter turned heads in the streets of Yerevan. There during MIT’s Independent Activities period (IAP), she was helping teach nuclear science at the American University of Armenia, before returning to MIT to pursue fusion research at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

    Startling people may simply be in Fisher’s DNA. She admits that when she first arrived at MIT, knowing nothing about nuclear science and engineering (NSE), she chose to join that department’s Freshman Pre-Orientation Program (FPOP) “for the shock value.” It was a choice unexpected by family, friends, and mostly herself. Now in her senior year, a 2021 recipient of NSE’s Irving Kaplan Award for academic achievements by a junior and entering a fifth-year master of science program in nuclear fusion, Fisher credits that original spontaneous impulse for introducing her to a subject she found so compelling that, after exploring multiple possibilities, she had to return to it.

    Fisher’s venture to Armenia, under the guidance of NSE associate professor Areg Danagoulian, is not the only time she has taught oversees with MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs, though it is the first time she has taught nuclear science, not to mention thermodynamics and materials science. During IAP 2020 she was a student teacher at a German high school, teaching life sciences, mathematics, and even English to grades five through 12. And after her first year she explored the transportation industry with a mechanical engineering internship in Tuscany, Italy.

    By the time she was ready to declare her NSE major she had sampled the alternatives both overseas and at home, taking advantage of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Drawn to fusion’s potential as an endless source of carbon-free energy on earth, she decided to try research at the PSFC, to see if the study was a good fit. 

    Much fusion research at MIT has favored heating hydrogen fuel inside a donut-shaped device called a tokamak, creating plasma that is hot and dense enough for fusion to occur. Because plasma will follow magnetic field lines, these devices are wrapped with magnets to keep the hot fuel from damaging the chamber walls.

    Fisher was assigned to SPARC, the PSFC’s new tokamak collaboration with MIT startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF), which uses a game-changing high-temperature superconducting (HTS) tape to create fusion magnets that minimize tokamak size and maximize performance. Working on a database reference book for SPARC materials, she was finding purpose even in the most repetitive tasks. “Which is how I knew I wanted to stay in fusion,” she laughs.

    Fisher’s latest UROP assignment takes her — literally — deeper into SPARC research. She works in a basement laboratory in building NW13 nicknamed “The Vault,” on a proton accelerator whose name conjures an underworld: DANTE. Supervised by PSFC Director Dennis Whyte and postdoc David Fischer, she is exploring the effects of radiation damage on the thin HTS tape that is key to SPARC’s design, and ultimately to the success of ARC, a prototype working fusion power plant.

    Because repetitive bombardment with neutrons produced during the fusion process can diminish the superconducting properties of the HTS, it is crucial to test the tape repeatedly. Fisher assists in assembling and testing the experimental setups for irradiating the HTS samples. Fisher recalls her first project was installing a “shutter” that would allow researchers to control exactly how much radiation reached the tape without having to turn off the entire experiment.

    “You could just push the button — block the radiation — then unblock it. It sounds super simple, but it took many trials. Because first I needed the right size solenoid, and then I couldn’t find a piece of metal that was small enough, and then we needed cryogenic glue…. To this day the actual final piece is made partially of paper towels.”

    She shrugs and laughs. “It worked, and it was the cheapest option.”

    Fisher is always ready to find the fun in fusion. Referring to DANTE as “A really cool dude,” she admits, “He’s perhaps a bit fickle. I may or may not have broken him once.” During a recent IAP seminar, she joined other PSFC UROP students to discuss her research, and expanded on how a mishap can become a gateway to understanding.

    “The grad student I work with and I got to repair almost the entire internal circuit when we blew the fuse — which originally was a really bad thing. But it ended up being great because we figured out exactly how it works.”

    Fisher’s upbeat spirit makes her ideal not only for the challenges of fusion research, but for serving the MIT community. As a student representative for NSE’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, she meets monthly with the goal of growing and supporting diversity within the department.

    “This opportunity is impactful because I get my voice, and the voices of my peers, taken seriously,” she says. “Currently, we are spending most of our efforts trying to identify and eliminate hurdles based on race, ethnicity, gender, and income that prevent people from pursuing — and applying to — NSE.”

    To break from the lab and committees, she explores the Charles River as part of MIT’s varsity sailing team, refusing to miss a sunset. She also volunteers as an FPOP mentor, seeking to provide incoming first-years with the kind of experience that will make them want to return to the topic, as she did.

    She looks forward to continuing her studies on the HTS tapes she has been irradiating, proposing to send a current pulse above the critical current through the tape, to possibly anneal any defects from radiation, which would make repairs on future fusion power plants much easier.

    Fisher credits her current path to her UROP mentors and their infectious enthusiasm for the carbon-free potential of fusion energy.

    “UROPing around the PSFC showed me what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to save the world?” More

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    Q&A: Latifah Hamzah ’12 on creating sustainable solutions in Malaysia and beyond

    Latifah Hamzah ’12 graduated from MIT with a BS in mechanical engineering and minors in energy studies and music. During their time at MIT, Latifah participated in various student organizations, including the MIT Symphony Orchestra, Alpha Phi Omega, and the MIT Design/Build/Fly team. They also participated in the MIT Energy Initiative’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in the lab of former professor of mechanical engineering Alexander Mitsos, examining solar-powered thermal and electrical co-generation systems.

    After graduating from MIT, Latifah worked as a subsea engineer at Shell Global Solutions and co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding sustainable and empowering solutions that impact disadvantaged populations in Malaysia. More recently, Latifah received a master of science in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, where they are currently pursuing a PhD in environmental engineering with a focus on water and sanitation in developing contexts.

    Q: What inspired you to pursue energy studies as an undergraduate student at MIT?

    A: I grew up in Malaysia, where I was at once aware of both the extent to which the oil and gas industry is a cornerstone of the economy and the need to transition to a lower-carbon future. The Energy Studies minor was therefore enticing because it gave me a broader view of the energy space, including technical, policy, economic, and other viewpoints. This was my first exposure to how things worked in the real world — in that many different fields and perspectives had to be considered cohesively in order to have a successful, positive, and sustained impact. Although the minor was predominantly grounded in classroom learning, what I learned drove me to want to discover for myself how the forces of technology, society, and policy interacted in the field in my subsequent endeavors.

    In addition to the breadth that the minor added to my education, it also provided a structure and focus for me to build on my technical fundamentals. This included taking graduate-level classes and participating in UROPs that had specific energy foci. These were my first forays into questions that, while still predominantly technical, were more open-ended and with as-yet-unknown answers that would be substantially shaped by the framing of the question. This shift in mindset required from typical undergraduate classes and problem sets took a bit of adjusting to, but ultimately gave me the confidence and belief that I could succeed in a more challenging environment.

    Q: How did these experiences with energy help shape your path forward, particularly in regard to your work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia and now at Stanford?

    A: When I returned home after graduation, I was keen to harness my engineering education and explore in practice what the Energy Studies minor curriculum had taught by theory and case studies: to consider context, nuance, and interdisciplinary and myriad perspectives to craft successful, sustainable solutions. Recognizing that there were many underserved communities in Malaysia, I co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia with some friends with the aim of working with these communities to bring simple and sustainable engineering solutions. Many of these projects did have an energy focus. For example, we designed, sized, and installed micro-hydro or solar-power systems for various indigenous communities, allowing them to continue living on their ancestral lands while reducing energy poverty. Many other projects incorporated other aspects of engineering, such as hydrotherapy pools for folks with special needs, and water and sanitation systems for stateless maritime communities.

    Through my work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, I found a passion for the broader aspects of sustainability, development, and equity. By spending time with communities in the field and sharing in their experiences, I recognized gaps in my skill set that I could work on to be more effective in advocating for social and environmental justice. In particular, I wanted to better understand communities and their perspectives while being mindful of my positionality. In addition, I wanted to address the more systemic aspects of the problems they faced, which I felt in many cases would only be possible through a combination of research, evidence, and policy. To this end, I embarked on a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in anthropology and pursued a Community-Based Research Fellowship with Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service. I have also participated in the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP), which helps graduate students “hone their leadership and communications skills to maximize the impact of their research.” RELP afforded me the opportunity to interact with representatives from government, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], think tanks, and industry, from which I gained a better understanding of the policy and adjacent ecosystems at both the federal and state levels.

    Q: What are you currently studying, and how does it relate to your past work and educational experiences?

    A: My dissertation investigates waste management and monitoring for improved planetary health in three distinct projects. Suboptimal waste management can lead to poor outcomes, including environmental contamination, overuse of resources, and lost economic and environmental opportunities in resource recovery. My first project showed that three combinations of factors resulted in ruminant feces contaminating the stored drinking water supplies of households in rural Kenya, and the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Consequently, water and sanitation interventions must also consider animal waste for communities to have safe drinking water.

    My second project seeks to establish a circular economy in the chocolate industry with indigenous Malaysian farmers and the Chocolate Concierge, a tree-to-bar social enterprise. Having designed and optimized apparatuses and processes to create biochar from cacao husk waste, we are now examining its impact on the growth of cacao saplings and their root systems. The hope is that biochar will increase the resilience of saplings for when they are transplanted from the nursery to the farm. As biochar can improve soil health and yield while reducing fertilizer inputs and sequestering carbon, farmers can accrue substantial economic and environmental benefits, especially if they produce, use, and sell it themselves.

    My third project investigates the gap in sanitation coverage worldwide and potential ways of reducing it. Globally, 46 percent of the population lacks access to safely managed sanitation, while the majority of the 54 percent who do have access use on-site sanitation facilities such as septic tanks and latrines. Given that on-site, decentralized systems typically have a lower space and resource footprint, are cheaper to build and maintain, and can be designed to suit various contexts, they could represent the best chance of reaching the sanitation Sustainable Development Goal. To this end, I am part of a team of researchers at the Criddle Group at Stanford working to develop a household-scale system as part of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, an initiative aimed at developing new sanitation and toilet technologies for developing contexts.

    The thread connecting these projects is a commitment to investigating both the technical and socio-anthropological dimensions of an issue to develop sustainable, reliable, and environmentally sensitive solutions, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). I believe that an interdisciplinary approach can provide a better understanding of the problem space, which will hopefully lead to effective potential solutions that can have a greater community impact.

    Q: What do you plan to do once you obtain your PhD?

    A: I hope to continue working in the spheres of water and sanitation and/or sustainability post-PhD. It is a fascinating moment to be in this space as a person of color from an LMIC, especially as ideas such as community-based research and decolonizing fields and institutions are becoming more widespread and acknowledged. Even during my time at Stanford, I have noticed some shifts in the discourse, although we still have a long way to go to achieve substantive and lasting change. Folks like me are underrepresented in forums where the priorities, policies, and financing of aid and development are discussed at the international or global scale. I hope I’ll be able to use my qualifications, experience, and background to advocate for more just outcomes.

    This article appears in the Autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative More