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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

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    MIT ReACT welcomes first Afghan cohort to its largest-yet certificate program

    Through the championing support of the faculty and leadership of the MIT Afghan Working Group convened last September by Provost Martin Schmidt and chaired by Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester, MIT has come together to support displaced Afghan learners and scholars in a time of crisis. The MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) has opened opportunities for 25 talented Afghan learners to participate in the hub’s certificate program in computer and data science (CDS), now in its fourth year, welcoming its largest and most diverse cohort to date — 136 learners from 29 countries.

    ”Even in the face of extreme disruption, education and scholarship must continue, and MIT is committed to providing resources and safe forums for displaced scholars,” says Lester. “We greatly appreciate MIT ReACT’s work to create learning opportunities for Afghan students whose lives have been upended by the crisis in their homeland.”

    Currently, more than 3.5 million Afghans are internally displaced, while 2.5 million are registered refugees residing in other parts of the world. With millions in Afghanistan facing famine, poverty, and civil unrest in what has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, the United Nations predicts the number of Afghans forced to flee their homes will continue to rise. 

    “Forced displacement is on the rise, fueled not only by constant political, economical, and social turmoil worldwide, but also by the ongoing climate change crisis, which threatens costly disruptions to society and has potential to create unprecedented displacement internationally,” says associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and ReACT’s faculty founder Admir Masic. During the orientation for the new CDS cohort in January, Masic emphasized the great need for educational programs like ReACT’s that address the specific challenges refugees and displaced learners face.

    A former Bosnian refugee, Masic spent his teenage years in Croatia, where educational opportunities were limited for young people with refugee status. His experience motivated him to found ReACT, which launched in 2017. Housed within Open Learning, ReACT is an MIT-wide effort to deliver global education and professional development programs to underserved communities, including refugees and migrants. ReACT’s signature program, CDS is a year-long, online program that combines MITx courses in programming and data science, personal and professional development workshops including MIT Bootcamps, and opportunities for practical experience.

    ReACT’s group of 25 learners from Afghanistan, 52 percent of whom are women, joins the larger CDS cohort in the program. They will receive support from their new colleagues as well as members of ReACT’s mentor and alumni network. While the majority of the group are residing around the world, including in Europe, North America, and neighboring countries, several still remain in Afghanistan. With the support of the Afghan Working Group, ReACT is working to connect with communities from the region to provide safe and inclusive learning environments for the cohort. ​​

    Building community and confidence

    Selected from more than 1,000 applicants, the new CDS cohort reflected on their personal and professional goals during a weeklong orientation.

    “I am here because I want to change my career and learn basics in this field to then obtain networks that I wouldn’t have got if it weren’t for this program,” said Samiullah Ajmal, who is joining the program from Afghanistan.

    Interactive workshops on topics such as leadership development and virtual networking rounded out the week’s events. Members of ReACT’s greater community — which has grown in recent years to include a network of external collaborators including nonprofits, philanthropic supporters, universities, and alumni — helped facilitate these workshops and other orientation activities.

    For instance, Na’amal, a social enterprise that connects refugees to remote work opportunities, introduced the CDS learners to strategies for making career connections remotely. “We build confidence while doing,” says Susan Mulholland, a leadership and development coach with Na’amal who led the networking workshop.

    Along with the CDS program’s cohort-based model, ReACT also uses platforms that encourage regular communication between participants and with the larger ReACT network — making connections a critical component of the program.

    “I not only want to meet new people and make connections for my professional career, but I also want to test my communication and social skills,” says Pablo Andrés Uribe, a learner who lives in Colombia, describing ReACT’s emphasis on community-building. 

    Over the last two years, ReACT has expanded its geographic presence, growing from a hub in Jordan into a robust global community of many hubs, including in Colombia and Uganda. These regional sites connect talented refugees and displaced learners to internships and employment, startup networks and accelerators, and pathways to formal undergraduate and graduate education.

    This expansion is thanks to the generous support internally from the MIT Office of the Provost and Associate Provost Richard Lester and external organizations including the Western Union Foundation. ReACT will build new hubs this year in Greece, Uruguay, and Afghanistan, as a result of gifts from the Hatsopoulos family and the Pfeffer family.

    Holding space to learn from each other

    In addition to establishing new global hubs, ReACT plans to expand its network of internship and experiential learning opportunities, increasing outreach to new collaborators such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), companies, and universities. Jointly with Na’amal and Paper Airplanes, a nonprofit that connects conflict-affected individuals with personal language tutors, ReACT will host the first Migration Summit. Scheduled for April 2022, the month-long global convening invites a broad range of participants, including displaced learners, universities, companies, nonprofits and NGOs, social enterprises, foundations, philanthropists, researchers, policymakers, employers, and governments, to address the key challenges and opportunities for refugee and migrant communities. The theme of the summit is “Education and Workforce Development in Displacement.”

    “The MIT Migration Summit offers a platform to discuss how new educational models, such as those employed in ReACT, can help solve emerging challenges in providing quality education and career opportunities to forcibly displaced and marginalized people around the world,” says Masic. 

    A key goal of the convening is to center the voices of those most directly impacted by displacement, such as ReACT’s learners from Afghanistan and elsewhere, in solution-making. More

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    MIT Center for Real Estate launches the Asia Real Estate Initiative

    To appreciate the explosive urbanization taking place in Asia, consider this analogy: Every 40 days, a city the equivalent size of Boston is built in Asia. Of the $24.7 trillion real estate investment opportunities predicted by 2030 in emerging cities, $17.8 trillion (72 percent) will be in Asia. While this growth is exciting to the real estate industry, it brings with it the attendant social and environmental issues.

    To promote a sustainable and innovative approach to this growth, leadership at the MIT Center for Real Estate (MIT CRE) recently established the Asia Real Estate Initiative (AREI), which aims to become a platform for industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and the academic community to find solutions to the practical concerns of real estate development across these countries.

    “Behind the creation of this initiative is the understanding that Asia is a living lab for the study of future global urban development,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

    An investment in cities of the future

    One of the areas in AREI’s scope of focus is connecting sustainability and technology in real estate.

    “We believe the real estate sector should work cooperatively with the energy, science, and technology sectors to solve the climate challenges,” says Richard Lester, the Institute’s associate provost for international activities. “AREI will engage academics and industry leaders, nongovernment organizations, and civic leaders globally and in Asia, to advance sharing knowledge and research.”

    In its effort to understand how trends and new technologies will impact the future of real estate, AREI has received initial support from a prominent alumnus of MIT CRE who wishes to remain anonymous. The gift will support a cohort of researchers working on innovative technologies applicable to advancing real estate sustainability goals, with a special focus on the global and Asia markets. The call for applications is already under way, with AREI seeking to collaborate with scholars who have backgrounds in economics, finance, urban planning, technology, engineering, and other disciplines.

    “The research on real estate sustainability and technology could transform this industry and help invent global real estate of the future,” says Professor Siqi Zheng, faculty director of MIT CRE and AREI faculty chair. “The pairing of real estate and technology often leads to innovative and differential real estate development strategies such as buildings that are green, smart, and healthy.”

    The initiative arrives at a key time to make a significant impact and cement a leadership role in real estate development across Asia. MIT CRE is positioned to help the industry increase its efficiency and social responsibility, with nearly 40 years of pioneering research in the field. Zheng, an established scholar with expertise on urban growth in fast-urbanizing regions, is the former president of the Asia Real Estate Society and sits on the Board of American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association. Her research has been supported by international institutions including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

    “The researchers in AREI are now working on three interrelated themes: the future of real estate and live-work-play dynamics; connecting sustainability and technology in real estate; and innovations in real estate finance and business,” says Zheng.

    The first theme has already yielded a book — “Toward Urban Economic Vibrancy: Patterns and Practices in Asia’s New Cities” — recently published by SA+P Press.

    Engaging thought leaders and global stakeholders

    AREI also plans to collaborate with counterparts in Asia to contribute to research, education, and industry dialogue to meet the challenges of sustainable city-making across the continent and identify areas for innovation. Traditionally, real estate has been a very local business with a lengthy value chain, according to Zhengzhen Tan, director of AREI. Most developers focused their career on one particular product type in one particular regional market. AREI is working to change that dynamic.

    “We want to create a cross-border dialogue within Asia and among Asia, North America, and European leaders to exchange knowledge and practices,” says Tan. “The real estate industry’s learning costs are very high compared to other sectors. Collective learning will reduce the cost of failure and have a significant impact on these global issues.”

    The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow shed additional light on environmental commitments being made by governments in Asia. With real estate representing 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Asian real estate market is undergoing an urgent transformation to deliver on this commitment.

    “One of the most pressing calls is to get to net-zero emissions for real estate development and operation,” says Tan. “Real estate investors and developers are making short- and long-term choices that are locking in environmental footprints for the ‘decisive decade.’ We hope to inspire developers and investors to think differently and get out of their comfort zone.” More

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    “Vigilant inclusion” central to combating climate change

    “To turbocharge work on saving the planet, we need effective, innovative, localized solutions, and diverse perspectives and experience at the table,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, the keynote speaker at the 10th annual U.S. Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Women in Clean Energy Symposium and Awards.

    This event, convened virtually over Nov. 3-4 and engaging more than 1,000 participants, was devoted to the themes of justice and equity in clean energy. In panels and presentations, speakers hammered home the idea that the benefits of a zero-carbon future must be shared equitably, especially among groups historically neglected or marginalized. To ensure this outcome, the speakers concluded, these same groups must help drive the clean-energy transition, and women, who stand to bear enormous burdens as the world warms, should be central to the effort. This means “practicing vigilant inclusion,” said Granholm.

    The C3E symposium, which is dedicated to celebrating the leadership of women in the field of clean energy and inspiring the next generation of women leaders, featured professionals from government, industry, research, and other sectors. Some of them spoke from experience, and from the heart, on issues of environmental justice.

    “I grew up in a trailer park in northern Utah, where it was so cold at night a sheet of ice formed on the inside of the door,” said Melanie Santiago-Mosier, the deputy director of the Clean Energy Group and Clean Energy States Alliance. Santiago-Mosier, who won a 2018 C3E award for advocacy, has devoted her career “to bringing the benefits of clean energy to families like mine, and to preventing mistakes of the past that result in a deeply unjust energy system.”

    Tracey A. LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who grew up in South Dakota, described the flooding of her community’s land to create a hydroelectric dam, forcing the dislocation of many people. Today, as administrator and CEO of the Western Area Power Administration, LeBeau manages distribution of hydropower across 15 states, and has built an organization in which the needs of disadvantaged communities are top of mind. “I stay true to my indigenous point of view,” she said.

    The C3E Symposium was launched in 2012 to increase gender diversity in the energy sector and provide awards to outstanding women in the field. It is part of the C3E Initiative, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Texas A&M Energy Institute, and Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy, which hosted the event this year.

    Connecting global rich and poor

    As the COP26 climate summit unfolded in Glasgow, highlighting the sharp divide between rich and poor nations, C3E panelists pursued a related agenda. One panel focused on paths for collaboration between industrialized nations and nations with developing economies to build a sustainable, carbon-neutral global economy.

    Radhika Thakkar, the vice president of corporate affairs at solar home energy provider Greenlight Planet and a 2019 C3E international award winner, believes that small partnerships with women at the community level can lead to large impacts. When her company introduced solar lamp home systems to Rwanda, “Women abandoned selling bananas to sell our lamps, making enough money to purchase land, cows, even putting their families through school,” she said.

    Sudeshna Banerjee, the practice manager for Europe and Central Asia and the energy and extractives global practice at the World Bank, talked about impacts of a bank-supported electrification program in Nairobi slums where gang warfare kept girls confined at home. “Once the lights came on, girls felt more empowered to go around in dark hours,” she said. “This is what development is: creating opportunities for young women to do something with their lives, giving them educational opportunities and creating instances for them to generate income.”

    In another session, panelists focused on ways to enable disadvantaged communities in the United States to take full advantage of clean energy opportunities.

    Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at MIT, believes remote, rural communities require broadband and other information channels in order to chart their own clean-energy journeys. “We must provide access to more than energy, so people can educate themselves and imagine how the energy transition can work for them.”

    Santiago-Mosier described the absence of rooftop solar in underprivileged neighborhoods of the nation’s cities and towns as the result of a kind of clean-energy redlining. “Clean energy and the solar industry are falling into 400-year-old traps of systemic racism,” she said. “This is no accident: senior executives in solar are white and male.” The answer is “making sure that providers and companies are elevating people of color and women in industries,” otherwise “solar is leaving potential growth on the table.”

    Data for equitable outcomes

    Jessica Granderson, the director of building technology at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the 2015 C3E research award winner, is measuring and remediating greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s hundred-million-plus homes and commercial structures. In a panel exploring data-driven solutions for advancing equitable energy outcomes, Granderson described using new building performance standards that improve the energy efficiency and material performance of construction in a way that does not burden building owners with modest resources. “We are emphasizing engagements at the community level, bringing in a local workforce, and addressing the needs of local programs, in a way that hasn’t necessarily been present in the past,” she said.

    To facilitate her studies on how people in these communities use and experience public transportation systems, Tierra Bills, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University, is developing a community-based approach for collecting data. “Not everyone who is eager to contribute to a study can participate in an online survey and upload data, so we need to find ways of overcoming these barriers,” she said.

    Corporate efforts to advance social and environmental justice turn on community engagement as well. Paula Gold-Williams, a C3E ambassador and the president and CEO of CPS Energy, with 1 million customers in San Antonio, Texas, described a weatherization campaign to better insulate homes that involved “looking for as many places to go as possible in parts of town where people wouldn’t normally raise their hands.”

    Carla Peterman, the executive vice president for corporate affairs and chief of sustainability at Pacific Gas & Electric, and the 2015 C3E government award winner, was deliberating about raising rates some years ago. “My ‘aha’ moment was in a community workshop where I realized that a $5 increase is too much,” she said. “It may be the cost of a latte, but these folks aren’t buying lattes, and it’s a choice between electricity and food or shelter.”

    A call to arms

    Humanity cannot win the all-out race to achieve a zero-carbon future without a vast new cohort of participants, symposium speakers agreed. A number of the 2021 C3E award winners who have committed their careers to clean energy invoked the moral imperative of the moment and issued a call to arms.

    “Seven-hundred-and-fifty million people around the world live without reliable energy, and 70 percent of schools lack power,” said Rhonda Jordan-Antoine PhD ’12, a senior energy specialist at the World Bank who received this year’s international award. By laboring to bring smart grids, battery technologies, and regional integration to even the most remote communities, she said, we open up opportunities for education and jobs. “Energy access is not just about energy, but development,” said Antoine, “and I hope you are encouraged to advance clean energy efforts around the globe.”

    Faith Corneille, who won the government award, works in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Energy Resources. “We need innovators and scientists to design solutions; energy efficiency experts and engineers to build; lawyers to review, and bankers to invest, and insurance agents to protect against risk; and we need problem-solvers to thread these together,” she said. “Whatever your path, there’s a role for you: energy and climate intersect with whatever you do.”

    “We know the cause of climate change and how to reverse it, but to make that happen we need passionate and brilliant minds, all pulling in the same direction,” said Megan Nutting, the executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Sunnova Energy Corporation, and winner of the business award. “The clean-energy transition needs women,” she said. “If you are not working in clean energy, then why not?” More