Heads of state and heads of government recently attended the 2018 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit held in Brussels, Belgium. There, President Donald Trump created controversy by criticizing Germany and calling other allies “delinquent.” Yet, he deemed the meetings a “success.”
Barry Posen, a leading national security expert and Cold War historian, offers in-depth scholarship on the historic meetings. Posen, a Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program, discusses the role of NATO today, and whether the alliance is “stronger than ever,” as President Trump stated in a post-summit press conference. And he provides historical context on defense spending, which was a chief criticism of the U.S. president.
Q: A core argument of President Trump’s going into the NATO Summit was that the defense spending by our allies is significantly imbalanced and needs to be increased. This issue has also been cited as an issue by earlier U.S. presidents. Do our allies “owe” us money?
A: For many years, U.S. officials, including past presidents, have registered their displeasure with the level of defense spending by the NATO allies. It has been a guideline, perhaps since 2006, reaffirmed at the NATO Wales summit in 2014, that each ally would endeavor to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense. At Wales the allies further set 2024 as the year when this objective should be achieved. The fact is that NATO's own figures — which differ slightly from national figures as a result of an accounting system that tries to ensure that each member's overall efforts are measured identically — show that the U.S. will devote 3.5 percent of its economy to defense in 2018, while the European average is expected to be 1.5 percent; and that follows four years of European increases.
If one subscribes to the argument advanced by alliance supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, that NATO is an alliance of liberal democracies, which constitutes the foundation of a liberal world order from which all benefit, then all should contribute, and thus this is a very significant gap. It must be remembered that Europe as a whole is a very wealthy region; European nations can afford to invest more for their own security. Thus, the Europeans are cheap-riding on the U.S.
That said, the allies don't "owe" the U.S. money in a legal or even an administrative sense. Other than a small budget for NATO infrastructure, there is no gigantic pool of NATO military funding to which we and the Europeans are meant to contribute. There is no official military account in deficit on anyone's books, awaiting European checks.
If one looks into what the European spending does buy, there is a further difficulty: European defense spending is inefficient. Some of this inefficiency reflects the fact that the spending is distributed across 26 independent countries, some of them very small. But even the large countries are often inefficient. Germany, the most productive economy in European NATO, seems to get much less than it should for the money it does spend, which the president fairly points out is only about 1.25 percent of its GDP. For example, at best a third of its military equipment is in working condition.
Q: Some scholars have argued that NATO is obsolete. What role does it play today?
A: Rather than ask whether NATO is obsolete, one should ask whether its benefits to the U.S. are commensurate with its costs to the U.S. This is a matter that should be debated.
The original U.S. strategic reason for joining NATO was to ensure that the damaged but still productive post-World War II European economies would not fall into the hands of the Soviet Union and be turned against us. The U.S. never wishes to compete with a hegemonic power that controls all the wealth of western Eurasia. The elimination of this security threat was achieved with the Soviet collapse in 1991. Russia today is a mere shadow of the Soviet Union; France and Germany together have vastly more economic potential than Russia, and they even spend more in absolute terms on defense. So the great threat to Europe is no more. Russia is a pain in the neck, not a candidate for continental hegemony. NATO still does provide the U.S. with bases in Europe, troop contributions to various campaigns of the global war on terror, and some intelligence cooperation. NATO has also drawn the U.S. into three strategically unnecessary, if small, wars — Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya.
On the cost side of the ledger, the U.S. spends a great deal to be prepared to defend the European allies. Journalistic coverage and expert commentary on the NATO summit have been misleading on this score. Some like to count only the cost of the U.S. forces based in Europe, some 70,000 people in uniform, which is significant but not gigantic. This is absurd: Those forces enjoy their deterrent and combat power due to the logistics and training base, and more importantly the reinforcements, and even the nuclear deterrent force, based in the U.S. It may be hard to estimate the costs accurately, but we should try. For most of the Cold War, the U.S. built its forces to deal with two nearly simultaneous wars, one each in Europe and Asia. In the post cold war world, we amended this to two "major regional" wars against a variety of possible middle power challengers. The Pentagon's recently released "National Defense Strategy" redirects U.S. military planning toward great power rivalry, which among other things means deterring Russia in Europe. Presuming that the "two major war" standard persists, it is reasonable to attribute half of current U.S. defense spending to the NATO commitment. Interestingly, this gets us to 1.75 percent of U.S. GDP, which is close to the 2 percent that we have asked the allies to achieve, and to which they aspire.
So the question citizens of the U.S. should ask, is what strategic benefits does this vast expenditure attain? If the most serious threat to the U.S. is gone, and the Europeans are rich enough to defend themselves against the threats that remain, should NATO continue to enjoy the priority is has had in U.S. national security policy? The U.S. foreign policy establishment has turned its attention to Asia, and the rise of China, which will likely prove a more formidable competitor than the Soviet Union ever was. This will require significant resources. Beyond security matters, if one day the U.S. begins to focus again on the ballooning national debt, the country will need to find the money somewhere.
Q: At a post-NATO Summit press conference, President Trump announced that “NATO is much stronger now” than it was before. Do you agree?
A: NATO is neither stronger nor particularly weaker than it was before. The Europeans concluded four years ago that they needed to increase their defense spending. They have made some increases since 2014, and plan for further increases. Some alliance members seem on track to hit 2 percent of GDP fairly soon; unfortunately most of the richer and potentially more capable allies are not quite on track, though they are increasing their spending. For the sake of calming the president, at the recent Brussels summit they may have verbally re-committed to their efforts, but as the president likes to say, "we will see what happens."
It is also critically important how the additional funds are spent. Decades of underfunding have left European militaries in woeful shape. It will take focused management attention to ensure that new money is not simply spread like butter across projects that may contribute little to the solution of key military problems.
I am dubious that all the allies will reach 2 percent of GDP allocated to defense. In the past, allied efforts of this kind have often started strong and then petered out. The basic structure of the alliance causes this. The U.S. is a very great power, and aside from President Trump, the foreign policy establishment views the U.S. as the guardian of (the) world order. So long as the U.S. is strongly committed to NATO, the allies know that if they do a little less, we will fill any important gaps. Economists call this the free rider problem. In his way, the president may understand this, and could count it a political victory if, as a result of his targeted truculence, no slackening of European efforts happens on his watch.
The MIT European Club has donated $40,000 to fund 10 new MISTI European Fellows this summer. Not only is it of the most substantial gifts given by a student group to the MIT community, it also marks the 10th anniversary of a successful partnership.
“The students of the MIT European Club have shown outstanding leadership by enabling their fellow MIT students to benefit from MISTI internships in Europe,” says Richard K. Lester, the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and associate provost for international activities. “This is a wonderful example of MIT students looking out for each other.”
Alicia Goldstein Raun, managing director of MISTI’s MIT-Spain, MIT-Portugal, and MIT-UK programs, says she finds pride in the strong partnership that the MIT European Club and MISTI European country programs have built. “As a result, more MIT students will have the opportunity to practice the 'mens-et-manus' approach in the European context and contribute towards solving the world’s greatest challenges,” she says, referring to the Institute's motto of "mind and hand."
As strong supporters of MISTI programs in Europe, the club has allocated the gift to fund ten MISTI fellows this summer in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The student projects include:
Giulio Alighieri, the president of the MIT European Club, says MISTI fellowships “allow MIT students to do research while experiencing firsthand European culture. Because of that, the partnership with MISTI is the cornerstone of the plan to fulfill our mission to connect MIT students with Europe.”
The funds for the MISTI-European Club fellowships were raised in part through the yearly European Career Fair (ECF), which Alighieri, a PhD candidate in cancer research at the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering, calls a “tremendous and unique opportunity.” Alighieri praises the MISTI officers and network that helps the club recruit more companies for the ECF, and the dedication of the members of the MIT European Club who organize it.
Each year, MISTI matches over 1,000 students with internship, research, and teaching opportunities at leading companies, research institutes, and universities around the world. Based in the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), MISTI is MIT’s pioneering international education initiative and collaborates with departments, programs and clubs across the Institute.
The MIT European Club is a student activity club of over 2,700 postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and visiting scientists. The club’s current executive board members are president Giulio Alighieri, vice president Susanna Bächle, treasurer Karine Ip Kiun Chong, secretary Katrin Michel, social chair Xiaoyu Wu, and events chairs Saviz Mowlavi and Jane Hung.
Lea Morical, a freshman in mechanical engineering who is currently interning in Spain, says the European Career Fair and MISTI help effectively realize the MIT European Club's mission of fostering cross-cultural collaborations.
“The programs enable MIT students of all levels to work and live in Europe,” Morical says.
Leah Flynn Gallant, associate dean and director for student leadership and engagement programs at MIT, speaks highly of the club’s current board and president.
“Giulio Alighieri has worked tirelessly with his board to think of new and innovative ways to recruit students and connect with European student community networks in and outside of MIT to continue the success of the European Career Fair,” Gallant says. “It has been a pleasure to work with and see the European Club grow over the past few years.”
Women make up half the world’s population, but just 12 percent of the world’s heads of state and government. This disparity underscores a persistent reality in the 21st century: Despite steady advances in women’s rights in recent decades, gender norms and biases continue to constrain human potential around the world.
A growing number of policymakers believe that investing in women and girls’ empowerment can reduce these and other gender-based inequalities. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 5, for example, seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Increasing empowerment is also seen as a promising strategy to unlock greater economic growth in low- and middle-income countries.
In order to design effective policies and programs, however, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners must be able to accurately measure women’s and girls’ empowerment. A new research resource from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) addresses this challenge.
Co-authored by Rachel Glennerster, chief economist at the UK Department for International Development and former executive director of J-PAL; and Lucia Diaz-Martin and Claire Walsh of J-PAL, the “Practical Guide to Measuring Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment” offers guidance on strategies to help navigate and overcome common challenges in effectively measuring empowerment in impact evaluations.
Researchers can rarely observe people’s decision-making in real-time, and survey questions that ask study participants about decision-making do not always lead to reliable responses, particularly when questions touch on sensitive topics. For these reasons, it can be hard for researchers and practitioners to identify whether a social program or intervention actually increased people’s decision-making power, a common measure of empowerment.
Beyond survey challenges, questions arise around which outcomes best capture changes in empowerment. For example, should researchers focus on measuring educational attainment? Agency in household or community decision-making? Employment and control over income? Women and girls experience constraints that are deeply tied to their specific context. Because these constraints can vary so widely, what empowerment looks like for female students in Ghana might be very different from what it looks like for women living in a rural village in India. Researchers often grapple with how to generalize lessons learned from a particular program when what empowerment looks like can vary greatly around the world.
J-PAL’s new guide draws on strategies from multiple academic disciplines to tackle these measurement issues. Rich with case studies and concrete examples, it outlines actionable steps to improve measurement.
Determine local context
Understanding the local context is key. Before trying to measure empowerment in an impact evaluation, researchers must have a nuanced picture of the local context and the specific barriers that women face when trying to make meaningful choices about their own lives. Qualitative research methods such as semi-structured interviews, needs assessments, direct observation, and focus groups can help by creating repeated opportunities to listen closely to the people living in a particular community. A measurement strategy to quantify empowerment is only as good as researchers and practitioners’ understanding of gender and power dynamics in the local context.
In an evaluation in Bangladesh, for example, Glennerster and co-authors were interested in measuring adolescent girls’ mobility. After several focus groups with adolescent girls they learned that asking the generic question “How far away can you travel from home by yourself?” would not capture how a girl’s mobility was constrained, because the answer depended on what she was doing and for whom. Girls could travel to and from school alone, but they could not travel alone to do things that only had value to them, like going to local fairs. Since empowerment is about people’s abilities to make choices that matter to them, researchers added a question about mobility for activities that only had value to the adolescent girls in addition to the usual questions about going to school or visiting relatives.
Develop a theory for how intervention generates impact
Developing a clear theory of how an intervention generates impact can help researchers select accurate indicators of empowerment. To identify the outcomes of a women’s empowerment program (the change or impact we expect to see) and indicators (observable signals we use to measure that change), researchers and practitioners need a deep understanding of the pathways through which the program can affect people’s lives.
Mapping these pathways, from program inputs (like funding and staff time) to long-term outcomes, is also known as a “theory of change” and results in documentation of a program’s logical chain of results. This mapping process helps clarify appropriate measurement indicators, and helps researchers identify which assumptions must hold true for the program to succeed.
Develop a plan and carry out testing
Once researchers decide what outcomes to measure, they should develop and pilot data collection instruments in communities similar to ones where the evaluation will take place. This is an important reality check to make sure surveys work in local contexts.
For example, many commonly used survey questions to measure household decision-making are hard to ask and answer in practice. In Bangladesh, Glennerster and co-authors found that women gave very different answers to the general question, “Who usually makes decisions about healthcare for yourself: you, your husband, you and your husband jointly, or someone else?” and the more specific question, “If you ever need medicine, could you go buy it yourself?” Piloting different versions of a question can help researchers learn whether they are truly capturing the information they think they are.
Non-survey instruments can also be powerful for measuring things surveys can’t capture accurately — like gender bias. In a study on female leaders in India for example, researchers randomly assigned survey participants to hear one of two identical audio recordings of a short speech by a political leader, one spoken by a man and the other by a woman. They then asked participants to rate the leader’s effectiveness. Because the gender was the only difference between the two recordings, researchers could use this technique to measure bias against female leaders.
After researchers conduct a comprehensive pilot and incorporate lessons learned, they should design a practical data collection plan. Although data collection can be full of unexpected challenges, finding reliable, culturally appropriate, and convenient methods and times to collect survey data can help overcome measurement errors.
Why measure empowerment?
“If measurement techniques are inaccurate, it can be difficult to understand whether programs are effective, and how to improve on existing approaches,” says J-PAL’s Claire Walsh. Ensuring that measurement tools are reliable and precise can help researchers avoid drawing inaccurate conclusions about the impact of a program.
J-PAL recently announced new efforts to further expand the base of policy-relevant evidence related to gender and women’s empowerment. Alongside this research, J-PAL continues to create practical resources to support policymakers, practitioners, and researchers in effectively incorporating analysis of gender dynamics and impacts into their impact evaluations. For more information about this work, visit povertyactionlab.org/gender.
The first students to graduate from MIT’s cutting-edge “hybrid” master’s program, which combines a year’s worth of online learning through its MicroMasters program with one semester on campus to earn a full MIT master’s degree, have not only met all expectations, they ended up performing as well as and being virtually indistinguishable from traditional students in their overall performance.
There was some initial trepidation among the MIT faculty, recalls Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, and director of the master’s program in supply chain management. People wondered, “Will they be as good?” as the traditional students, he says. Now that the first blended class has completed the program, “The answer is they are as good and, in many cases, even better!” he says.
Sheffi is not at all surprised. This new set of students, who might never have been able to make it to MIT through traditional channels, faced obstacles that typical residential masters students may not. “They have spent about 18 months, usually on nights and weekends, going over tough assignments in MIT-level classes,” Sheffi says. “They have to do it on their own, after work and family obligations, at the end of the day. It shows their commitment, tenacity, and dedication. These are as important, and even more important, than something like intelligence.”
“The grit required to complete the online courses also helped prepare them for the fast pace of the on-campus classrooms,” adds Chris Caplice, executive director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics and director of the MITx MicroMasters program in supply chain management. The blended students tend to be a bit older and more experienced, typically having worked for an average of eight years. “It was amazing and gratifying to see the blended students jump back in and exel in the intense MIT academic environment,” notes Caplice.
Many of the students, who will now return to their jobs, tackled real-world problems from their businesses as their capstone projects for the degree, Sheffi says. “What they’re interested in is knowledge, not grades.” But they ended up with both, he says. “In all the courses they took in the spring [residential semester] they had better-than-average scores. And the residential students have a very high average!” The MIT program in supply chain management (SCM) has consistently been rated the top such program in the world, he points out.
One of the course instructors, MIT Senior Lecturer Jonathan Byrnes, says that after 27 years of teaching in MIT’s SCM program, “My class this year was the strongest that I ever have taught.” He adds, “It is interesting to note that the SCM students were mostly from our new ‘blended’ program — web learning plus six months’ residence at MIT. They were extremely strong relative to the other MIT students I have taught over the years.”
Others who taught in the program shared that view. “The blended learning students were top of the class,” says Richard Pibernik, who taught at one of the program’s two satellite campuses (in Zaragoza, Spain; the other is in Malaysia). “They were well-prepared, had good knowledge of all the relevant concepts, and seemed more mature and serious. That was a very positive surprise; before, I was somewhere between curious and skeptical about how they would do.”
“I have always enjoyed the high quality of the [SCM] students and the high level of class discussions,” notes Paulo Goncalves, who has taught at the Zaragoza center for six years. But this year with the blended group, he says “class discussions were markedly better than ever before. The diversity of the students is also clear. Students had more real work experience, more diverse backgrounds, were more engaged, and brought very rich perspectives to the classroom discussions.”
Students have also given the program high marks. Dan Covert, a student from Maine, said the program was “definitely challenging, but everything that I was learning, I could apply directly to the job I was doing. Although it was very difficult at times, it really kept me engaged because it had this direct feedback for my job the next day.”
In the online five-course program, which led to an MIT MicroMasters certificate after completion of a rigorous online exam, 1,900 students completed all the classes, and 622 successfully completed the final exam. Forty-two of the students ended up starting the residential semester in January of this year.
“We get hundreds of applications,” Sheffi says, “but we’re space-constrained.” In addition to the 42 students at MIT’s Cambridge campus, this year there were 17 in Zaragoza and 12 in Malaysia, and those numbers are expected to continue with next year’s class.
“The amazing thing,” says Sheffi, who has taught at MIT for 43 years, “is that you get people who never had a dream of getting an MIT-level education.” Now, they have demonstrated that such nontraditional students are up to the challenge.
MIT is widely known as a top breeding ground for entrepreneurs, whose ventures have collectively grown into a colossal driver of the world’s economy. Increasingly, MIT is attracting and grooming entrepreneurs who are motivated, first and foremost, by their desire for impact, and who seek opportunities in some of the world’s most challenging markets.
Cases in point: Three companies incubated at MIT are among the 10 ventures that Techstars has announced will comprise their first Impact accelerator: Base Operations is being called “the Waze for crime” in emerging markets; Nigeria-based MDaaS Global builds and operates medical diagnostic centers; and Graviky Labs converts air pollution into safe, high-grade inks.
Techstars is highly prestigious and notoriously competitive, with accelerator cohorts generally boasting a one to two percent acceptance rate. Techstars Impact, based in Austin, Texas, is reporting an acceptance rate even lower than one percent. The new accelerator, announced last October, is the first Techstars program to specifically back for-profit, mission-driven founders who are building technologies to solve pressing social and environmental problems.
The accelerator’s managing director Zoe Schlag says: “(S)ince Techstars launched 10 years ago, we have had a deeply held belief that some of our biggest global challenges also represent some of our biggest opportunities.”
That’s a driving belief shared by many MIT-supported entrepreneurs. Three principals of the accepted ventures, Cory Siskind, Soga Oni, and Genevieve Oni, for instance, were all awarded fellowships with the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, which empowers students building ventures with high potential for impact in the developing world. Besides tuition, travel, and prototyping support, the fellows also receive targeted for-credit curriculum, mentorship, advising, and the peer support of an incubator-like community.
“When Techstars first announced they’d be launching an impact accelerator, we got very excited,” says Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director of the Legatum Center. “We hoped we’d become a natural pipeline for them, and help to strengthen their developing world presence, so it’s thrilling to see that hope realized twofold in their very first cohort.”
In addition to the Legatum Center Fellowships, Base is supported by MIT's Sandbox Innovation Fund and MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiative. MDaaS is also supported by the PKG Center, the MIT-Africa program at MISTI, and the IDEAS Global Challenge. Graviky Labs is supported by the MIT Media Lab.
The teams will spend the next two months in Austin and then present their work during a Demo Day in August.
During the four years she worked in Mexico City, Cory Siskind, who just completed a combined MBA/MPA program at MIT Sloan and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, grew frustrated by the lack of transparency around crime. As a consultant, she gathered intelligence to help ease her clients’ transitions into complex markets, but figured there must be a more efficient way to visualize this crucial information.
Siskind met Nick Gomez, a senior studying business analytics and computer science at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. As a native of Bogotá, Colombia, where he was exposed to high crime rates at an early age, Gomez strongly identified with Siskind’s mission. He joined her as CTO, and together they built Base Operations, which aggregates information from several sources including crowdsourced reports, news and social media, government statistics, and partner data, then provides users with real-time maps and tools to help them safely navigate the city. The platform is free to the public, but companies can subscribe to a specialized security manager version which uses proprietary data to solve complex security challenges.
Base Operations is now backed by several VC firms and angels, and was noted in a World Economic Forum article as one of the “startups that will shape Latin America’s future.” Base Operations launched its free, social impact version (available for iOS and Android) in Mexico City in July 2017, and has plans for international expansion. They will be piloting the subscription version, Base Enterprise, with select clients this summer.
Oluwasoga “Soga” Oni MS '16 was inspired to build an equipment services venture when his father, a medical doctor in Nigeria, showed him a room where he kept his broken equipment at the small hospital he owned. This is a common problem in developing countries, where nearly 40 percent of medical equipment is out of service. Not only is functioning equipment difficult to access financially, it also rarely comes with the support required for installation, maintenance, and repairs. Soga wondered if there was a market-based solution to this problem.
At MIT, as Soga began planning his venture, he met Genevieve Barnard Oni an MBA/MPA candidate at MIT Sloan and Harvard's Kennedy School, who had also observed the medical equipment challenge while working in Uganda. She began helping him with his venture, took on increasing levels of responsibility, and eventually became a cofounder. Their company, called MDaaS Global, initially focused on procuring affordable refurbished equipment which could be rented, leased, or purchased, then providing free installation, staff training, and flexible options for ongoing service support.
More recently, MDaaS Global has pivoted to focus on building and operating tech-enabled diagnostic centers. Their first center, which opened in November 2017 in Ibadan, Nigeria, is equipped with a digital x-ray, ultrasound, ECG, and a full lab, and is staffed by 12 employees including a doctor, a nurse, a radiographer, and two lab scientists. By leveraging a vertically integrated supply chain, MDaaS Global is able to source equipment and set up diagnostic centers for 60 percent less than their competition. Crucially, their model enables them to build scalable healthcare infrastructure in lower-income, peri-urban, and rural areas that rarely have access to higher-level care. Since launching, the first center has served over 2,500 low- and middle-income patients. They plan to open five new centers over the next 12 months.
During a break from his studies, Anirudh Sharma SM '14 returned to his home in Mumbai, India, and was struck by how quickly the soot in the air accumulated on his T-shirt. Sharma already knew that breathing in these pollution particles could lead to lung damage, cancers, and host of other health problems, but the deep black color also reminded him how carbon-rich the material was. Perhaps there was a way this air pollution could not only be captured before it enters the environment, but also converted into a safe and valuable product.
Back at MIT, Sharma formed Graviky Labs, and began exploring this opportunity in earnest. While participating in a workshop in India supported by MIT Global Startup Labs, he met and recruited one of his cofounders, Nitesh Kadyan, to oversee electronics and AI. Nikhil Kaushik also joined as the business lead, and Nisheeth Singh took over technical development. Together, they developed a system that captures particulate matter from the chimneys of diesel generators, treats the matter to remove heavy metals and toxins, then converts the matter into high grade ink (a technicological overview can be seen in a video the team produced for a Kickstarter campaign).
Graviky has since piloted their technology in Hong Kong, London, and Berlin, and has built a community of thousands of artists and early business adopters of this new recycling. Next they hope to deploy their capture technology in the most polluted urban spaces, in collaboration with diesel generator companies who are interested in reducing their emissions. They’re also exploring collaboration with government that would allow them to conduct research to evaluate their impact and help improve their system. Graviky has been featured on TED Global, Forbes' 30 under 30, National Geographic, BBC, and VICE.
In the midst of rapid social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia, MIT Professional Education is launching a new collaboration with Al Yamamah University (YU) aimed at promoting diversity at institutions of higher education and supporting the country’s overall development and sociocultural evolution.
As part of the initiative, MIT Professional Education will develop and teach professional education courses on leadership and innovation to YU’s executive MBA students in an effort to broaden the horizons of male and female participants who wish to enter or make progress in the increasingly globalized economy of Saudi Arabia.
“Our faculty will share their expertise, and they will encourage the exchange of ideas across genders — promoting greater innovation and creative thinking among all participants,” says Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education (MIT PE). “We are proud to collaborate with progressive leaders at Al Yamamah who want to enable technical and business leaders of tomorrow to better understand their societal responsibilities and shape a future marked by positive social and economic progress.”
The agreement between MIT PE and YU was signed at the Ministry of Education in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 31 in the presence of the Minister of Education of Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Aleisa. Aleisa, who served as the founding president of YU, sees the collaboration as an innovation for executive education in an economy and society aiming to be more diverse and inclusive. He welcomed the MIT PE delegation and highlighted the kingdom’s keen desire to build strategic partnerships with the world’s leading academic institutions that will empower Saudi youth to build their capacities.
Echoing Aleisa’s sentiments, YU’s Acting President, Professor Hussam Ramadan, said: “This collaboration with MIT will play a leading role in the developing the skills and potential of our young generation of community and business leaders. They will benefit from the expertise of MIT faculty and build bridges of communication and understanding for the betterment of our lives and the prosperity of our homeland.”
Professionals from Saudi Arabia have been attending MIT PE’s on-campus summer courses for many years. The kingdom is among the top nations sending students to its summer programs; over the past three years, 22 percent of Saudi enrollees have been women.
Last Spring, the country appointed Sumaya Bint Sulaiman Al Sulaiman as the dean of a prominent design college — the highest administrative position for a Saudi woman at a public college or university. Al Sulaiman holds executive certificates in management, leadership, strategy, and innovation from MIT.
Al Yamamah University’s contract with MIT PE covers three years. More than 150 students are expected to participate during the initial phase, followed by a second phase involving courses in cutting edge technology fields such as artificial intelligence. MIT faculty making the trip to Riyadh will be announced in August.
In recent decades, China has built and expanded its cities on a scale never seen before in human history. Given the vast social, economic, and environmental changes that have resulted, it is tempting to say that contemporary China has been a laboratory of urbanization.
In fact, to Siqi Zheng, China’s cities are very much labs. Zheng is an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning whose work examines the dynamic connections between what she calls urban “vibrancy” — economic and job growth, for instance — and urban “amenities,” such as transit, clean air, schools, housing, and restaurants.
The interplay between vibrancy and amenities can be complicated: Jobs and growth can create pollution, for example, which lowers the quality of urban life in one dimension, even as a city’s employment opportunities raise incomes. On the other hand, more far-sighted policies can bring amenities such as better transit, green parks, and affordable housing to cities in tandem with growth, and also attract talents who value such amenities.
In any such case, Zheng’s studies are characterized by a close examination of neighborhood-level or city-level conditions and the dynamics causing them. Or, as Zheng puts it, her work “uses individual choices and real estate to understand the driving forces behind values in the city.”
Those dynamics are a phenomenon Zheng and her co-author Matthew Kahn of the University of Southern California examined closely in their 2016 book, “Blue Skies over Beijing,” published by Princeton University Press, which explored urban change and air pollution.
As Kahn and Zheng found, the notoriously bad air pollution of China’s rapidly growing urban centers has created resistance among residents at multiple income levels. In particular, demands for a better urban quality of life from an ascendant middle class have led to pushback on existing policies. In the long run, Zheng and Kahn assert, China will move further in the direction of cleaner growth.
For her research and teaching, Zheng was hired with tenure by MIT in 2017. Her goals at the Institute include more research, continued teaching, and broadening the ties between her native country and her current home.
“I want to start more interaction between China and the U.S.,” Zheng says.
Actually, she already has: Last fall, MIT announced the formation of the China Future City Lab, an academic and entrepreneurial program headed by Zheng.
The lab, developed along with Tsinghua University in Beijing as well as corporate and governmental partners, has three main elements: It supports basic research on urban life in China; houses the MIT-Tsinghua Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC), which backs Chinese startup teams to launch pilot projects in Chinese cities; and works with Chinese cities that serve as “living labs” for ideas and innovations of MIT researchers.
In some ways, Zheng also personifies the expanding connections between China and the U.S. in recent decades. Zheng grew up in China and has spent the balance of her academic career there, as a student and professor. However, her intellectual formation owes a fair amount to her experiences in the U.S. academic world.
Zheng received a PhD in urban development and real estate from Tsinghua University, where she was closely focused on housing issues. But a stint as a postdoc at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design made her want to analyze some of the larger connections in the urban fabric — between growth, jobs, transit, the environment, and more.
Thus what Zheng calls the “very vibrant academic environment” in the U.S. led to a career shift of sorts: “I got so interested in urban issues [that] I switched from housing to the whole urban subject.”
Zheng became a professor at Tsinghua University, as well as the director of the Hang Lung Center for Real Estate there. She is now in her second full year at MIT, where she is the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate, Development, and Entrepreneurship as well as faculty director of the China Future City Lab — in addition to her duties in the Samuel Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab.
Even as she juggles new responsibilities, Zheng says she has quickly felt at ease on the MIT campus.
“One very special thing [here] is the interdisciplinary way of doing research,” Zheng observes.
Certainly Zheng ranges widely as a scholar in urban studies. In the time since her book was published, Zheng has co-authored papers with an array of findings about urban life. For instance, while examining the effects of public transit on pollution, she found that in the city of Changsha, neighborhood-level carbon monoxide pollution has dropped 18 percent in places where a new subway stop has opened.
Another study Zheng co-authored that was published last year shows that in China, the development of industrial parks has significant local economic spillover effects: For more than a mile beyond the boundaries of industrial parks, there are significant increases in productivity, wages, employment, home sales, and retail activities.
Still another recent Zheng paper examines how the opening of new subway stations in Beijing increases neighborhood land values by making those locales more desirable to an expanded market. Among other things, Zheng and her colleagues found that between 20 and 40 percent of residential rent increases was due to the opening of new neighborhood restaurants alone.
So what is next for Zheng? For now, she intends to pursue more of these kinds of studies. But in the long run, Zheng notes, she would like to broaden her urbanism projects to include other countries and continents.
“I want to generalize the lessons,” Zheng says. “I don’t want to just use China as a case study.”
At the moment, though, the rapid changes in China are providing her with a wealth of material to examine and questions to raise — and they keep her from thinking that she has a comprehensive understanding of some very complex urban situations.
“I still have a lot to learn,” says Zheng.
Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch (1962) Institute Professor at MIT, has been named one of five U.S. Science Envoys for 2018. As a Science Envoy for Innovation, Langer will focus on novel approaches in biomaterials, drug delivery systems, nanotechnology, tissue engineering, and the U.S. approach to research commercialization.
One of 13 Institute Professors at MIT, Langer has written more than 1,400 articles. He also has over 1,300 issued and pending patents worldwide. Langer's patents have been licensed or sublicensed to over 350 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology and medical device companies. He is the most cited engineer in history (h-index 253 with over 254,000 citations, according to Google Scholar).
Langer is one of four living individuals to have received both the United States National Medal of Science (2006) and the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2011). He has received over 220 major awards, including the 1998 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world's largest prize for invention, for being "one of history's most prolific inventors in medicine."
Created in 2010, the Science Envoy Program engages eminent U.S. scientists and engineers to help forge connections and identify opportunities for sustained international cooperation. Science Envoys engage internationally at the citizen and government levels to enhance relationships between other nations and the United States, develop partnerships, and improve collaboration. These scientists leverage their international leadership, influence, and expertise in priority countries to advance solutions to shared science and technology challenges. Science Envoys travel as private citizens and usually serve for one year.
Previous Science Envoys with connections to MIT include Susan Hockfield, president emerita of MIT, and Alice P. Gast, president of Lehigh University and former chemical engineering professor at MIT.
During high school, Prosper Nyovanie had to alter his daily and nightly schedules to accommodate the frequent power outages that swept cities across Zimbabwe.
“[Power] would go almost every day — it was almost predictable,” Nyovanie recalls. “I’d come back from school at 5 p.m., have dinner, then just go to sleep because the electricity wouldn’t be there. And then I’d wake up at 2 a.m. and start studying … because by then you’d usually have electricity.”
At the time, Nyovanie knew he wanted to study engineering, and upon coming to MIT as an undergraduate, he majored in mechanical engineering. He discovered a new area of interest, however, when he took 15.031J (Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies), which introduced him to questions of how energy is produced, distributed, and consumed. He went on to minor in energy studies.
Now as a graduate student and fellow in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, Nyovanie is on a mission to learn the management skills and engineering knowledge he needs to power off-grid communities around the world through his startup, Voya Sol. The company develops solar electric systems that can be scaled to users’ needs.
Determination and quick thinking
Nyovanie was originally drawn to MIT for its learning-by-doing engineering focus. “I thought engineering was a great way to take all these cool scientific discoveries and technologies and apply them to global problems,” he says. “One of the things that excited me a lot about MIT was the hands-on approach to solving problems. I was super excited about UROP [the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program]. That program made MIT stick out from all the other universities.”
As a mechanical engineering major, Nyovanie took part in a UROP for 2.5 years in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity with Professor Martin Culpepper. But his experience in 15.031J made him realize his interests were broader than just research, and included the intersection of technology and business.
“One big thing that I liked about the class was that it introduced this other complexity that I hadn’t paid that much attention to before, because when you’re in the engineering side, you’re really focused on making technology, using science to come up with awesome inventions,” Nyovanie says. “But there are considerations that you need to think about when you’re implementing [such inventions]. You need to think about markets, how policies are structured.”
The class inspired Nyovanie to become a fellow in the LGO program, where he will earn an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a master’s in mechanical engineering. He is also a fellow of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.
When Nyovanie prepared for his fellowship interview while at home in Zimbabwe, he faced another electricity interruption: A transformer blew and would take time to repair, leaving him without power before his interview.
“I had to act quickly,” Nyovanie says. “I went and bought a petrol generator just for the interview. … The generator provided power for my laptop and for the Wi-Fi.” He recalls being surrounded by multiple solar lanterns that provided enough light for the video interview.
While Nyovanie’s determination in high school and quick thinking before graduate school enabled him to work around power supply issues, he realizes that luxury doesn’t extend to all those facing similar situations.
“I had enough money to actually go buy a petrol generator. Some of these communities in off-grid areas don’t have the resources they need to be able to get power,” Nyovanie says.
Before co-founding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo, Nyovanie worked at SunEdison, a renewable energy company, for three years. During most of that time, Nyovanie worked as a process engineer and analyst through the Renewable Energy Leadership Development Rotational Program. As part of the program, Nyovanie rotated between different roles at the company around the world.
During his last rotation, Nyovanie worked as a project engineer and oversaw the development of rural minigrids in Tanzania. “That’s where I got firsthand exposure to working with people who don’t have access to electricity and working to develop a solution for them,” Nyovanie says. When SunEdison went bankrupt, Nyovanie wanted to stay involved in developing electricity solutions for off-grid communities. So, he stayed in talks with rural electricity providers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria before eventually founding Voya Sol with Jo.
Voya Sol develops scalable solar home systems which are different than existing solar home system technologies. “A lot of them are fixed,” Nyovanie says. “So if you buy one, and need an additional light, then you have to go buy another whole new system. … The scalable system would take away some of that risk and allow the customer to build their own system so that they buy a system that fits their budget.” By giving users the opportunity to scale up or scale down their wattage to meet their energy needs, Nyovanie hopes that the solar electric systems will help power off-grid communities across the world.
Nyovanie and his co-founder are currently both full-time graduate students in dual degree programs. But to them, graduate school didn’t necessarily mean an interruption to their company’s operations; it meant new opportunities for learning, mentorship, and team building. Over this past spring break, Nyovanie and Jo traveled to Zimbabwe to perform prototype testing for their solar electric system, and they plan to conduct a second trip soon.
“We’re looking into ways we can aggregate people’s energy demands,” Nyovanie says. “Interconnected systems can bring in additional savings for customers.” In the future, Nyovanie hopes to expand the distribution of scalable solar electric systems through Voya Sol to off-grid communities worldwide. Voya Sol’s ultimate vision is to enable off-grid communities to build their own electricity grids, by allowing individual customers to not only scale their own systems, but also interconnect their systems with their neighbors’. “In other words, Voya Sol’s goal is to enable a completely build-your-own, bottom-up electricity grid,” Nyovanie says.
During his time as a graduate student at MIT, Nyovanie has found friendship and support among his fellow students.
“The best thing about being at MIT is that people are working on all these cool, different things that they’re passionate about,” Nyovanie says. “I think there’s a lot of clarity that you can get just by going outside of your circle and talking to people.”
Back home in Zimbabwe, Nyovanie’s family cheers him on.
“Even though [my parents] never went to college, they were very supportive and encouraged me to push myself, to do better, and to do well in school, and to apply to the best programs that I could find,” Nyovanie says.
Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal heralded the importance of science and innovation in a visit to the Institute on Monday, days after his country formally renewed the popular MIT Portugal Program.
‘The future arrives quicker than expected,” said Costa, in remarks to a filled lecture hall in MIT’s Stata Center, adding: “There is no better way to prepare our modern society and economy for the unexpected path of innovation and technological development than to invest in the education of younger generations.”
Costa’s visit came about 10 days after the official renewal of the MIT Portugal Program, a joint endeavor to push forward scientific research and innovation while creating collaborations between industry and academia.
MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt, speaking just before Costa, said Institute leaders were “pleased and thrilled” to have seen “MIT Portugal develop across a range of programs and projects in research, education, and innovation.”
Costa also had a one-on-one meeting with MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who told the Portugese leader that it was a “tremendous honor” to meet him. ‘There is much to admire about your country,” he said.
The MIT Portugal program provides opportunities for exceptional students to study at MIT and in Portugal, working with faculty from both MIT and Portugese universities. Now entering its third phase, the program will have an emphasis on research in earth sciences, climate studies, data science, digital design and manufacturing, and urban studies.
The program was created in 2006 and renewed for the first time in 2013, with this year’s long-term renewal of support by Portugal being made official on June 1. The program has had over 1,000 students over the last 12 years.
“MIT Portugal has had a huge impact on our scientific system and universities,” Costa said.
MIT’s faculty lead for the new phase of the program will be Dava Newman, the Apollo Professor of Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, who praised Portugal on Monday for having “the vision to invest in their work force.”
Costa, a native of Lisbon, has been prime minister of Portugal since 2015. He served the federal government in Portugal in a variety of ministerial roles for about a decade before serving as mayor of Lisbon from 2007 through 2015.
Costa was accompanied by a delegation of Portugese officials, including Manuel Heitor, the Portuguese minister for science, technology, and higher education.
“MIT Portugal is about the future,” said Heitor, an engineering professor by trade who has written extensively about science and technology policy, and also spoke at the event. Heitor added: “We want to address new challenges.”
The Portugese leaders also toured workspaces at MIT, including an extended stop at the Robot Locomotion Group led by Russ Tedrake, the Toyota Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Mechanical Engineering at MIT.
Costa and Heitor also talked to a group of about a dozen Portugese graduate students currently at the Institute as part of the MIT Portugal Program. The students discussed their fields of study, which included clean energy, civil engineering, management, and medical research.
“These people are leaders — who represent our own ambition,” said Heitor, referring to the students.
At one point, Costa also asked the students, “What can we do to improve the program?” In response, Luiz Lisboa de Silva Cardoso, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, simply quipped, “Keep going.”
Costa affirmed his desire to do so in his talk, concluding, “We are proud to have MIT as our partner because, we believe, with MIT, the sky is not the limit.”
Swanny Lamboy Rodriguez is not one to complain. The University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Humacao senior, who will begin a doctoral program at MIT this fall, downplays the impact of Hurricane Maria, the historic storm that devastated her country last September.
“It was frustrating not to be able to communicate,” she admits.
Despite experiencing months without power, water, and other essentials, she feels lucky because her family’s home was left fairly intact. By contrast, her campus in Humacao, where she was studying biology, suffered extensive damage. All told, UPR’s 11 campuses sustained millions of dollars in damages from the storm.
Rodriguez resumed her studies at the end of October, but classes were held in tents. For her and many other students, prospects for continuing coursework and conducting research — and for seniors, completing degrees and applying for graduate programs — looked bleak if not impossible.
Then one day she drove to a WiFi hotspot and found an email waiting for her from Mandana Sassanfar, a MIT biology lecturer. It read: “If you get this message, we would like to offer you the opportunity to study here in the spring semester.”
Rodriguez took the offer, as did four other UPR seniors: Angel Astacio-Echevarria, Gabriel Colón-Reyes, Raul Mojica Soto-Albors, and Jean Carlos Vega-Díaz.
Vega-Díaz, an architecture major at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedrasm, had been considering volunteering for clean-up service on the island when he received the good news.
“My entire family cried in disbelief when I received the invitation from MIT,” he says. “I thought, what university would care enough to provide this incredible life-changing opportunity?”
That opportunity came about thanks to Sassanfar, who also oversees diversity and outreach for the departments of Biology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Gloria Anglón, assistant dean and director of diversity initiatives in the Office of Graduate Education (OGE), with help from faculty and administrators from across the Institute. Sassanfar and Anglón knew the students already, because all five of them had participated in the 2017 MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).
Founded in 1986, each year MSRP serves about 40 undergraduate students from schools around the U.S. Aimed at underrepresented or underserved students, the program’s mission is to promote the value of graduate education, increase diversity, and prepare and recruit talented scholars for graduate school at MIT. There are currently two distinct programs: one specifically for biology and brain and cognitive sciences, and one for all other departments.
Inviting MSRP alumni from Puerto Rico to continue their studies at MIT made perfect sense, says Anglón. “They’ve already spent a summer here doing research, which we knew would help them acclimate more easily to the academic semester,” she says.
Anglón and Sassanfar chose seniors because their prospects for graduate school next year, at MIT or elsewhere, would suffer most if they did not graduate on time. To stay on track, the students took two or three classes and conducted research, which, for some, was a continuation their work during last summer’s MSRP.
After the students arrived in early February, a number of staff in OGE, the Office of the Vice Chancellor, and the Department of Biology provided additional support to ensure a smooth transition. They arranged a special orientation, connected the students with the Association of Puerto Rican Students at MIT, and held regular gatherings with staff and MSRP pod leaders — graduate students who guide and mentor students during the summer program.
Being on campus this spring was an eye-opener for the students. Rodriguez, whose research focused on lung cancer, was amazed at the size of one of her biology classes; she had never had a class with more than 25 people before. Even the modern facilities were a novelty. “I couldn’t believe that those chalkboards could move up and down in 10-250,” she says.
She and her fellow UPR students were also exposed to novel areas of study not available at their home institutions.
“We have no neuroscience research going on at my campus, so it’s a completely new thing to me,” says Raul Mojica Soto-Albors, a UPR at Mayaguez biology major. His work at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research involved characterizing neuron populations in the retrosplenial cortex of mice. Although he has additional coursework to complete at UPR next year, neuroscience has piqued his curiosity and he’s considering pursuing a PhD in the field. “I will totally apply to MIT,” he says.
Vega-Díaz found the architecture program at MIT quite distinct from UPR, where the focus is more on design within the context of spatial relations. MIT, he notes, integrates other parameters, like environmental tools to study the impact of solar power on energy consumption. He worked in the Urban Risk Lab, an interdisciplinary group of designers and researchers that develops ways to incorporate risk reduction and preparedness into urban and regional design.
“My life changed with this research group,” he says. “Since my time at MIT, I have become passionate about being a pioneer in Puerto Rico who can integrate communities into post-disaster reconstruction.” After he graduates this summer, he’ll return to the Urban Risk Lab as a research scientist for a year, while also working on a design portfolio for his graduate school application.
Even during their short time, the visiting students faced a challenge common to many MIT students: balancing coursework, activities, and all of the opportunities to work independently and explore interdisciplinary studies.
“I was used to the work life I had going on at my institution,” says Soto-Albors. “But then coming here there’s so much more that you can do, there’s so many things available that you really have to set up your schedule and have serious time management skills.” On top of classes, he worked in the lab full time, often staying until 7 or 8 p.m. and then heading home to study and work on problem sets. “It was a nice experience particularly because of that,” he says, because it gave him a sense of what life is like as a graduate student.
Moreover, the students had to navigate an abrupt transition to a new culture and location. Rodriguez finished her coursework at UPR on Jan. 31, said a quick goodbye to her family, and hopped on a plane for Boston the next day.
“The most meaningful experience I had here was seeing myself slowly improve in classes after having dragged with me a lot of the indifference, academically speaking, the aftermath of the hurricane had left on me ... while being here, I saw myself improve and I knew that not all was lost.”
Sassanfar says MIT got as much out of the visit as the UPR students did.
“Seeing firsthand how hard the students worked and how much they benefited from this opportunity makes it all so worthwhile,” she says. “Not only does this directly impact diversity here, it also strengthens our existing relationships with faculty in Puerto Rico.”
Blanche Staton, a senior associate dean in OGE, echoes that sentiment.
“We were so pleased to have experienced the new perspective that these students brought to our campus, and are hopeful that they will be among our future graduate students,” she says. “They were clearly excited by their time here and will certainly act as ambassadors for the Institute.”
More than 400 leaders convened on campus last month for Solve at MIT, Solve’s annual flagship meeting. Attendees traveled from 38 countries to meet and advise Solver teams and hear remarks from luminaries such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, VEON Chairwoman Ursula Burns, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Alphabet technical advisor and board member Eric Schmidt.
Six Solver teams pitched their solutions on stage, including Jay Newton-Small, chief executive officer of MemoryWell; Elizabeth Frank, co-founder of MealFlour; Kristin Kagetsu, co-founder of Saathi; Paul Falzone, executive director of Peripheral Vision International; and Patrick Meier, executive director of WeRobotics.
In addition to featuring the 2017 Solver class, the conference highlighted the next round of Global Challenges. Solve seeks innovative solutions to four new 2018 Challenges: Work of the Future, Frontlines of Health, Coastal Communities, and Teachers and Educators.
Solve announced $650,000 in prize funding will be available to the 2018 Solver class. This pool includes funding from General Motors, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, and a new $10,000 grant for each Solver provided by Solve.
Solve at MIT, which ran from May 16-18, included five thought-provoking plenary sessions, several workshops to advance Solver solutions, and networking opportunities to build partnerships within the Solve community.
In the opening plenary session, “The Heart of the Machine: Bringing Humanity Back into Technology,” panelists and speakers discussed the current state of technology, the rapid speed at which it advances, and how we can use it for good. Panelists Yo-Yo Ma and Eric Schmidt grappled with questions of how we combine technology and culture for social progress, and how we mend the way technology has divided us.
“During times of huge change, historically we’ve had the opportunity to redefine who we want to be, whether it’s during the Renaissance or during the Enlightenment,” Ma said. “I’d like to pose the question, who do we want to be [today]?”
Schmidt answered, “More tolerant, more diverse, more intelligent.” He argued these changes can be achieved through education, that we must teach people the importance of tolerance.
The second panel consisted of Ursula Burns, Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker, MIT Media Lab Ethics Initiative Director Tenzin Priyadarshi, and Tom Taylor, Amazon’s senior vice president of Alexa. They discussed technology from a different perspective — ethics and responsibility. They debated the industry’s responsibility to build products for good and stressed the importance of diversity in building new technologies. Baker argued the need to include the humanities in tech education “so the technologists themselves have a sense of humanity — what it actually means to be human for the technology they build.”
In the “Healthy Planet, Healthy People” session, panelists and speakers discussed the interrelation of human and environmental health and debated ways to improve both. A youth environmental activist panel of Malual Bol Kiir, executive director of African Youth Action Network; Brianna Fruean, climate activist and founding member of 350 Samoa; and Amira Odeh, organizer of Caribbean Youth Environment Network, told personal stories of the impacts of climate change.
They spoke of the beloved walkway in Samoa that will soon be underwater; drought and rising temperatures in South Sudan that limit natural resources, and the destruction of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Fruean issued a call to the world’s youth, saying: “You’re never too young to do something; you’re never too young to change the world.”
During the “Connecting through Tech” session, Roya Mahboob, chief executive officer of Digital Citizens Fund; Reshma Saujani, founder and chief executive officer of Girls Who Code; and Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, discussed ways to engage and empower women in technology.
That included everything from the need to expose girls to technology at a young age, to creating safe single-sex spaces for girls to learn, to the role that men play in supporting women. “We need to be thoughtful about what we can do as individuals in supporting the ecosystem and committing ourselves to diversifying [the entrepreneurs] we see,” said Saujani.
In the “True Stories of Starting Up” session, insightful speakers such as Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofua; Affectiva CEO Rana el Kaliouby; and Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research and Development and founder of FIRST, talked about the realities of reaching both personal and professional goals.
During his conversation with Media Lab Assistant Professor Danielle Wood, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness in decision-making and driving change. “Diversity is a source of strength, not of weakness,” he added. “Having someone alongside you with different perspectives helps you solve a problem.”
During the “Design for Mars, Solve for Earth” session, former astronaut Cady Coleman, Hewlett Packard Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel, and Danielle Wood discussed how technology and tools designed for space can support life in extreme environments on earth.
The conversation went beyond technology. The panelists covered some other lessons learned in space: notably, how teamwork and a crystal clear mission drive impact. Working on a spaceship with a six-person crew is much like working on any team, Coleman explained. “The mission is more important than whether you like each other or whether you want to do that [task],” Coleman said. With that mindset, “We end up doing extraordinary things.”
A new partnership between MIT and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Flanders, Belgium, seeks to build bridges between researchers at both institutions, and between the Dutch and French-speaking regions of Belgium.
The five-year partnership will create additional internship and research opportunities for MIT students within KU Leuven’s 34 departments and six interdisciplinary institutes, as well as establish a new Global Seed Fund grant program to support early-stage collaborations between MIT and KU Leuven researchers. Operated through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the new Global Seed Fund grant will provide up to $30,000 in financial support to fund travel costs incurred during international research initiatives. Calls for proposals are now open, and the application deadline is Sept. 17.
The new partnership creates “a lever to more institution-to-institution type of collaboration,” says Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven. “That’s what I find so important. It no longer depends on the individual ties between people who already know each other, but it creates a platform in which promising researchers and ambitious students can participate.”
An historic agreement
The new partnership also has broader diplomatic implications, says Vincent Blondel, rector of the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Louvain-la-Neuve. UCL, which is a valued partner of MIT-Belgium, has sponsored its own seed grants since 2011 UCL is the largest French-speaking university in Belgium, while KU Leuven is the largest Dutch-speaking university.
For centuries, both institutions were part of the country’s first university — the Universitas Lovaniensis. UCL and KU Leuven established independent institutions in 1968. The MIT-Belgium partnership marks the first joint international project involving both institutions since the split. The signing, which took place at MIT on March 9, was attended by Sels, Blondel, and MIT associate provost Richard K. Lester. It marked the first time since the 1960s that rectors from both Belgian institutions have cooperated on an official joint visit overseas.
“This is something that we do together after half a century of separation,” Blondel says. “It has a very strong symbolic energy.”
Molly Schneider, managing director of MISTI’s France and Belgium programs, says that the MIT-KU Leuven partnership was made possible through innovative leadership spearheaded by key stakeholders within both institutions. KU Leuven’s robust research facilities, interdisciplinary centers, and its position as one of the world’s premier institutions in science, engineering, technology, and biomedical studies make the school an intuitive partner for MIT. She considers the new partnership as “a natural and strategic step” towards supporting existing relationships between collaborators in Cambridge and Flanders, and broadening those opportunities.
“This agreement will allow us to support intellectual collaboration between MIT researchers and partners at KU Leuven, and to increase student mobility,” Schneider says. “This is a mutually beneficial partnership at every level, and would not have been possible without critical support and visionary leadership from our partners at KU Leuven.”
Belgium and beyond
Luc Sels says that the partnership strengthens individual international ties already established by researchers within both institutions, and provides a centralized channel for connecting potential new collaborators with similar areas of interest. KU Leuven’s strategic research centers that focus on biotechnology, energy, and nanotechnology, along with its relationships with science and tech industry leaders like Samsung, Intel, and Sony, also bolster collaboration potential for researchers in the United States and Europe.
“We are very happy that the agreement is now signed and now we can really start working and implementing things,” Sels says. “We are really thrilled.”
He adds that Belgium’s geographic position close to intellectual capitals like Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Strasbourg, also offer unique opportunities for students and MIT faculty to work with pioneers from a broad range of scientific and cultural backgrounds.
Belgium’s position as an epicenter of innovation is one of many reasons why Cathy Culot has spent the past 15 years creating opportunities for MIT students within the country. Culot is a lecturer in the MIT Global Studies and Languages department and co-director of MIT-Belgium, a program that has placed students in summer internship and research positions since 2009. Culot has been instrumental in building much of the MIT-Belgium Program from the ground up, and says that the new landmark partnership will provide new opportunities for MIT students and is a conscious step towards making Belgium’s motto, Unity makes strength, a living reality.
“This partnership definitely embodies this principle,” Culot says.
Lester, who oversees MIT’s international activities, views the partnership as “a terrific example” of how MISTI is expanding the Institute’s global engagement to benefit both students and faculty, and helping to keep international education opportunities at the core of MIT’s institutional strategy. As the new Global Seed Fund grant gets further underway and with calls for joint project proposals opening this past week, Lester expects to see global engagement flourish even more.
“My expectation and hope is that expansion will continue,” he says. “There’s such a long history of MIT engagement in Belgium with MIT researchers and academics. This agreement will help to reinforce what has been a very productive and important relationship for us.”
MISTI, a part of the Center for International Studies, is a program at the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
Political science doctoral candidate Elissa Berwick started her academic journey aiming for the stars.
During her undergraduate years at Yale University, she majored in physics, spending summers working the telescope at observatories like Chile's Cerro Tololo. But while she appreciated "the challenge and the beauty of physics," she says, "ultimately the research didn't click." In senior year, after taking courses in history and political science which she found to be "a pure joy," she added a political science major.
Today Berwick is fully focused on earthbound concerns, with a dissertation subject so topical that it is unfolding in real-time. She is investigating European pro-independence movements, and specifically the formation of subnational identities — the ways people within states coalesce around a common language, culture, and shared beliefs.
"I'm trying to understand why people in places like Scotland and the Catalan, Galician, and Basque regions of Spain sometimes feel stronger connections to each other than to fellow citizens in the larger state," Berwick says. "I want to determine the costs and consequences of having a stronger subnational identity, and then to compare the different regional narratives of independence to each other," she says.
It is a hefty research agenda that entails mining historical records, performing surveys and field interviews, and employing state-of-the-art quantitative methods. Berwick would like eventually to expand her focus to northern Italy, and Flanders — regions in which identity politics is currently roiling the civic scene.
As part of her dissertation research, Berwick analyzed responses to a 2,300-person survey conducted throughout Spain. The questionnaire queried citizens on their mother tongue, religion, political party, and political leanings, such as support for the budgetary austerity imposed by Spain after the financial crisis of 2008, whether the central government should do a better job of redistributing wealth, and if the country should permit autonomous regions greater independence.
Using a software program she helped write with MIT Associate Professor Teppei Yamamoto, director of MIT's Political Methodology Lab, Berwick revealed a cluster of provocative findings. "Identity boundaries matter when it comes to people's beliefs in income redistribution," she says. "Catalans and to some extent Basques like the idea of more redistribution within their regions, applied just to their own people, but are very opposed to policies that would share resources, including those of their own region, more equitably throughout Spain.
Berwick's surveys and interviews suggest the reason for this paradoxical perspective on achieving economic equity: "After the financial crisis, there was a collapse of confidence in political and economic institutions in Spain," she says. "There was a shift in discourse, a corresponding crash in trust, which was felt most sharply among Catalans and to a smaller extent among Basques."
The sense that a central government was failing them fueled activists in regions seeking independence. "For nationalists building coalitions, the cultural dimension of shared language and history was not enough," says Berwick. "They needed to build an economic message."
The financial crisis helped to market the subnationalist movements, suggests Berwick.
"When speaking with prominent activists, I realized that for them identity and even independence were secondary to the central goal, which is taking care of their own people — an ethos of obligation to fellow Catalans or Basques," Berwick says. "I had not expected that."
This surprise, which challenged Berwick's thinking, is "typical of the pleasures and frustrations of my research," she says. "People don't fit into the narrative and you have to think on your feet and come up with a new one."
It is the kind of improvisation she has come to expect throughout her academic journey. After Yale and a year working in the U.S. House of Representatives, she pursued a master's degree at Oxford University. Berwick did not have to seek far for a research topic: At Yale, she had been engaged by the violent conflict in Sudan around Darfur's drive for independence.
"I was already thinking about why and where nationalist discourses come from and how they change over time," she says. With Oxford's wealth of archival resources at hand, Berwick began exploring episodes of early 20th century nationalism: Ireland, India, and Egypt, all revolting against British control. "I sorted through historical material and managed to find hidden connections among these disparate cases," she says.
She came to MIT in search of a doctoral education where she could continue this kind of research while receiving rigorous training in quantitative methods. "Taking the quant sequence here, I remembered I really liked math," she says. Berwick enjoyed these classes so much that she served in one she had just completed as a teaching assistant. "Teaching is a great antidote to my research routine," she notes, "along with yoga classes and reading science fiction."
With the help of advisors Fotini Christia and Kathleen Thelen, Berwick shaped her final dissertation project. "Their mentorship has been so important to me, and without them I would never have been able to frame my research agenda," she says.
Before earning her degree in June 2019, Berwick must return to Europe several more times for interviews, archival research and surveying. It has not become easier for her. "No one tells you how lonely field work is, if you're doing it on your own for a year," she says. But solitude can lead to unexpected rewards.
"I didn't know anyone in Barcelona, so I googled a synagogue for high holy days," Berwick recalls. The service was presented in five languages at once — Catalan, Hebrew, Castilian Spanish, English, and French. "I introduced myself to the woman next to me, and I discovered she had started a chapter of Jews for Catalan Independence," Berwick says. "It was a weird but funny intersection of my seeking community and finding something really useful for my research."
Ten MIT startups have been selected for the inaugural cohort of the China Venture Workshop, jointly sponsored by the MIT China Future City Lab’s (CFC) China Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC) and DesignX, the School of Architecture and Planning’s accelerator for innovation in the built environment. The startups, with goals ranging from clean energy to job creation, aim to launch ventures in China to solve problems associated with urbanization.
The FCIC prepares teams of innovators to tackle the problems of urbanization by working with those active in the Chinese urban development industry. The program pairs teams from MIT with academic advisors at Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Science, and with leading industry and civic actors, to guide them through a local pilot launch process. The program also provides essential business skills and insights for operating in China, including how to work closely with the government and how to engage customers.
“If we want to solve the challenges of cities in China, as well as around the world, we need innovative companies to deploy solutions on the ground,” says Siqi Zheng, faculty director of the China Future City Lab. Zheng is an urban and environmental economist whose research focuses on Chinese cities.
“China, however, is a hard market to penetrate,” she says. “We offer teams the knowledge, connections, and support to launch successfully in China. The CFC Lab is developing a systematic approach to identifying urban challenges in Chinese cities that are local to each city but that also share some characteristics, and then design procedures to better match the technological and social innovations with those challenges.”
The workshop is a two-week intensive summer program led by faculty and staff from CFC, DesignX, and Tsinghua University, where the program will partly take place. It will introduce entrepreneurial teams to potential investors, resources, and experts in their fields as they turn their ideas and inventions into tangible ventures. The startups will also travel to other Chinese cities that are leaders in innovation to identify potential pilot locations and meet with local leaders and innovators.
“China presents unique opportunities for innovation in design, cities, and the built environment,” says Professor Dennis Frenchman, faculty director of DesignX, who has worked in China for more than 30 years. “We find that cities are willing to experiment with new technologies and patterns of development that will improve urban livability.”
On May 21 the teams met with over 30 of the CFC’s Chinese industrial partners to demonstrate their progress and solicit feedback before they embark on the piloting trip.
“The fact that FCIC teams will have the opportunity to work with influential real estate conglomerates, city governments, and academic researchers in Greater China will provide a significant advantage to these ambitious urban innovation startups,” said CFC’s executive director, Zhengzhen Tan, who designed and developed the FCIC program in cooperation with DesignX and Tsinghua University.
According to Tan, the workshop received 25 applications that featured a wide variety of creative and innovative ideas. FCIC, DesignX, and industry partners evaluated written applications, listened to pitches, and conducted interviews to choose the teams.
Gilad Rosenzweig, executive director of DesignX, has been working with dozens of startups that are making an impact in cities. “This opportunity to engage in modern Chinese city making is unique,” says Rosenzweig. “DesignX was created to help design and deploy ideas and technology to improve design, cities, and the human experience. Partnering with the CFC Lab and Tsinghua University will support exponential growth for everyone involved.”
These are the startups:
AdaViv uses artificial intelligence to help indoor agriculture companies monitor their crops and make adjustments to growing conditions to optimize results. AdaViv’s founders are particularly interested in China’s expanding herbal medicine market.
Biobot Analytics deploys robotic sensors in urban sewer systems to help governments collect and evaluate real-time public health data, such as the prevalence of opioids and other drugs. They have completed experiments in the U.S., Kuwait, and South Korea.
CitoryTech allows individuals to familiarize themselves with their community by employing innovative data to lead residents on outings to explore their cities.
Constructure matches various construction industry participants to increase transparency between employers and their potential employees.
Gaia Elements is developing a kite-powered system to generate energy from wind. They are seeking to expand this innovative technology in China, the world’s largest clean energy market.
Kawsay connects infrastructure providers with people living in informal communities and provides data analysis and tools to help the providers manage business growth, explore new markets, and track impact. Their first project was improving water delivery in Lima, Peru, and the team is now working to expand their data collection and forecasting in larger markets.
Multimer collects, visualizes, and analyzes geolocated data transmitted by wearable technology to inform human-centered spatial design and decisions. They have previously partnered with the United Nations, Harley-Davidson, and IBM to help the organizations understand how their users, employees, and customers utilize a space.
Roots Studio digitizes the creative content of traditional artists from remote areas around the world and connects them to the $32-billion global art, interior decor, and design licensing markets.
Shurong Data provides behavior chain analysis using advanced data collection technologies to initiate and aid smarter real estate development and urban planning.
VThree.AI uses artificial intelligence to empower smart buildings and smart urban life, focusing initially on the problem of energy waste in cities by monitoring and identifying “top waster” devices and rooms in buildings.
In addition, the MIT teams will be joined in China by six startups associated with Tsinghua University:
Air Faucet System replaces water used during hand-washing with high-speed air flow, achieving the same cleanliness while cutting water use by 90 percent.
Galloon extracts and treats moisture from the air, turning it into safe drinking water. They are developing technology for use by both individuals and cities.
LeanFM Technologies employs artificial intelligence to monitor the status of household and office devices and predict impending mechanical failure.
Linktravel collects and analyzes commuter data to provide consumers with schedules and help transportation companies improve their efficiency.
Sponge Public Restgardens uses sponge technology to absorb rainwater for use in public restrooms and nearby artificial ponds, creating both efficient bathrooms and urban beauty.
Zhongyan Parking increases the efficiency of underground parking by building vertical shafts that can accommodate ten times as many cars as a typical parking lot of the same size.
Zheng, who also serves as the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship, says that she is optimistic about the positive change that the combination of visionary startups and knowledgeable partners will bring about.
“This program has the potential to help combat the issues of urbanization in China in an innovative and creative manner that could improve people’s urban living experiences,” Zheng says. “Even in only our first year, we think the program is going to have an immediate impact.”
Four years ago, a team of graduate students at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning helped curator and associate professor of architecture Ana Miljacki research, plan, and mount the United States’ pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. The exhibition, titled “OfficeUS,” took a comprehensive look at America’s influence in the world over the past 100 years through its architectural work abroad.
This year, two of those students — now alumni — are returning to Venice as curators of their national pavilions for the 2018 Biennale, open to the public from May 26 to Nov. 25. “It is an unexpected honor and opportunity to co-curate the U.S. Pavilion at this year’s Biennale, at this point in my career,” says Ann Lui SMArchS ’15, an assistant professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago who was named co-curator of “Dimensions of Citizenship,” the exhibition that will represent the United States in Venice.
“The call for proposals for the U.S. Pavilion was issued shortly after the inauguration of a new administration that raised urgent and troubling questions, including ones about citizenship today. I felt that architecture needed to be part of that conversation. It was a longshot. But I believe our proposal spoke to this contemporary moment.”
The Biennale has long been a personal goal for Gabriel Kozlowski SM ’15, selected last November to co-curate the Brazil Pavilion. “The year I joined this school was also the year that Rem Koolhaas was curating the Biennale, so I came to MIT knowing that I wanted to get to Venice,” says Kozlowski. A native of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, he holds a master’s degree in urbanism and is currently a teaching fellow in the Department of Architecture and a research associate at the Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism.
“When I arrived at MIT, I discovered that a professor was curating the U.S. pavilion, offering a course where students would help develop the support materials for that exhibit,” he says. “I learned how to understand an exhibition as a means to elaborate on specific concepts and present them in innovative ways, and to how to plan and coordinate all the production involved in a large event like this without losing sight of the broader picture. Now, just four years later, I’m in the position Ana was in. And I hope to be able offer to my younger colleagues and collaborators what she once offered me.”
Both Lui and Kozlowski’s 2018 Biennale projects engage with global questions that extend far beyond traditional design and planning. Lui’s “Dimensions of Citizenship” will examine the concept of citizenship across a variety of scales, ranging from the cosmos to the human body. Each of its seven elements offers a detailed look into a global issue such as climate change, migration, sovereignty, or the future of the nation-state through a specific case study. “We intend to ask two questions,” says Lui. “What does it mean to be a citizen today? And what is the role of architecture to help research, understand, and render visible these questions of what it means to belong?”
Kozlowski’s project, titled “Muros de Ar” (Walls of Air), explores ways to visualize and understand walls — both concrete and conceptual — that have constructed the Brazilian territory and its society, in relation to the broader context. Moving from global scale to that of the architectural object, the pavilion will feature mappings of Brazil’s human and material flows (immigration/emigration patterns and the movement of commodities across the country), the relation between artificial and natural ecosystems, the implications of Brazil’s political borders, the geography of the country’s real estate market, and the physical limits within its cities. The exhibit promises to be austere; Kozlowski and his three co-curators have chosen to eschew the ubiquitous 3-D renderings, photos, videos, and animations, electing instead to articulate their vision exclusively in line drawings and maps.
Lui and Kozlowski’s project represent a sizeable shift in how architecture presents itself, both to the profession and to the world at large. Lui, who had Miljacki as her thesis advisor at MIT, believes that shift began in part in 2014 with “OfficeUS.” “Ana and her co-curators presented architecture in an unprecedented way, as a discipline of active research, both historical and in the production of the resident exhibitors,” says Lui, who along with her teaching job is co-founder of Future Firm, a Chicago-based architecture firm. “She and the team showed me — and everyone who saw the 2014 exhibit — that history is an ongoing act of construction. I learned that historical research can also be a practice, just like the practice of design.”
The selections of Lui and Kozlowski come as no surprise to their former mentor and current colleague. Yet she is reluctant to take any credit. “Perhaps the experience of working on a project as big in scale as our 2014 exhibit prepared them for their current roles,” says Miljacki, whose own research interest include architecture in Cold War Eastern Europe and the politics of contemporary architectural production. “But even then, they were incredibly competent colleagues, people I could turn to with a problem and know they would find a solution. And they were both great architectural thinkers, each in their own way. They’re just amazing.”
William Rodríguez grew up resetting the family router and fixing all things technological in his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When the self-described computer junkie began to look at colleges, he knew that MIT was the right fit.
“I’ve always been interested in technology and in the different ways in which you can make people’s lives better through [technological] tools,” Rodríguez says. “MIT had that spirit of using technology and underscoring the importance of innovation.”
Once he arrived in Cambridge, Rodríguez followed his passion for computer science and majored in electrical engineering and computer science. After taking 14.73 (The Challenge of World Poverty) taught by Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, Rodríguez decided to declare a minor in economics.
“I learned that economics was basically applying science to humans, to the systems we create, and to the ways we think,” Rodríguez says. “I enjoy engineering, but I also really enjoy the humanities and social sciences, so this pairing came naturally to me.”
Rodriguez’s dual interests in technology and in his fellow humans have also merged in his many extracurricular activities at MIT. Whether teaching entrepreneurship in Brazil, volunteering on campus, or helping to lead MIT’s Model UN organization, he is happiest when broadening his horizons and helping others do the same.
Before coming to MIT, Rodríguez studied French for five years. Determined to keep practicing the language, he studied conversational French during his first year at the Institute. Intending to learn more languages on top of English, Spanish, and French, Rodríguez scanned the language course offerings and enrolled in Portuguese for Spanish speakers. After practicing his Portuguese throughout the semester, he decided to pursue a summer internship in Brazil through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).
Rodríguez interned at Take.NET, a mobile technology company based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. At Take.NET, he designed the marketing plan for the company’s new artificially intelligent chatbot. But that’s not all Rodríguez accomplished.
“There, I basically became fluent in the language. It was really funny — in the host family, the mother was trying to learn English, the father was trying to learn Spanish, and I was trying to learn Portuguese.” Rodríguez says. “We really complemented each other, and I became immersed in the language and culture.”
Rodríguez’s positive internship experience led him back to Brazil during his senior year Independent Activities Period (IAP) — this time to São Paulo to teach through the MIT Global Teaching Labs. Along with Massachusetts-area graduate and undergraduate students, Rodríguez served as a teaching assistant for a class on entrepreneurship. The class consisted of a series of entrepreneurship workshops targeted to approximately 100 Brazilian students, graduates, and professionals, covering topics “from the basics of choosing an idea and bringing an idea to market.”
In the future, Rodríguez says he could envision a future for himself in entrepreneurship.
“I believe it’s one of my long-term goals,” Rodríguez says. “I think it’s very powerful to choose an idea that you really believe in to help people in some way, and to have the tenacity, the perseverance, to build a team, lead a team, and bring the idea to market.”
But, before that, Rodríguez wants to learn at least two more languages, beginning with Japanese or Mandarin.
Service for all
Before beginning his first semester at MIT, Rodríguez participated in the MIT Office of Minority Education’s Interphase EDGE program, a two-year scholarship program that begins in the summer before students arrive at MIT and helps ease the academic and social transition from high school to college.
After students complete the program, they have the opportunity to serve as associate advisors for incoming students. As an associate advisor, Rodríguez checks in with a cohort of 16 students throughout their first few semesters at MIT, sometimes recommending classes, decoding internship applications, or lending a sympathetic ear when students need to talk.
“I really valued the relationships I built, so I saw [advising] as a way to give back to the new students who were coming in through the program,” Rodríguez says.
Rodríguez has also helped organize the MIT-Harvard Relay for Life since his first year, and has served as vice president of team management, and later, director. In 2017, a joint MIT-Harvard Relay for Life event raised $50,000 for the American Cancer Society.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept across Puerto Rico, Rodríguez teamed with fellow senior Gabriel Ginorio to organize a three-day donation drive in October through the MIT Association of Puerto Rican Students. The money and supplies gathered through the drive served over 5,000 Puerto Rican residents.
For his work in public service, Rodríguez was recognized as an MIT Distinguished Peer in Public Service this past October.
Developing global literacy
During high school, Rodríguez was an active member in Model United Nations, an international student organization that simulates the workings of the United Nations assembly. The experience sparked an interest in international affairs and policy that he wanted to continue during his time at MIT.
As part of the MIT Model United Nations Conference, Rodríguez now plans the competitions in which he once participated for high school students around the world. In the competition, students propose “tangible solutions that can ameliorate an issue or improve certain situations in different place around the world.”
Part of planning the competitions involves generating the prompts students compete with in competition. At MIT’s annual Model United Nations competition, students have worked on a wide range of issues, ranging from “the monetary challenge of cryptocurrency, nuclear power as a viable source of energy, and how governments tackle climate change.”
Rodríguez served as chief operating officer of the student organization during his sophomore year, and as president during his junior year. Eager to bring the competition to the international stage, he founded the first international chapter of the conference, which was held in Shanghai, China, this past year.
“I really value the mission [of Model United Nations],” Rodríguez says. “You want to broaden the horizons so that students are exposed to problems and issues that they might never encounter in a typical classroom setting — problems involving countries and cultures different from their own.”
This coming August, Rodríguez plans to travel back to Shanghai for the second international conference. His involvement with international policy may not end there. “I’ve considered going into roles in economic development research and policy, whether it be a role in the United Nations or a government,” he says. “This could be the scope of things I’d be happy being involved with.”
Speaking today at Solve at MIT, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the best way to deal with the accelerating pace of profound changes in the world is to step up and help to influence how those changes unfold. Solve at MIT is the annual flagship meeting of Solve, which challenges teams around the world to come up with solutions to great challenges facing society.
People can be afraid of the changes being wrought by new technologies and an increasingly global and diverse society, and try to cling to past ways, “or else we can decide to shape the change,” he said. “That’s what’s happening here at MIT, and it’s also very much the mindset we take in Canada, and it’s the mindset we need around the world.”
He added that “there are going to be tremendous shifts, so let’s be part of it. It’s a deliberate choice — but not an easy choice.” One of the ways Canada is embracing future change, he said, is by “investing massively” in artificial intelligence research.
Trudeau, who has assembled the most diverse cabinet in Canada’s history, half of whom are women, said that this inclusiveness makes for a better decision-making process. He explained that his cabinet also includes a people with a variety of personal, ethnic, and professional backgrounds, from those who have run multimillion-dollar companies to those who ran a shelter for battered women. “Diversity is a source of strength, not of weakness,” he said. “Having someone alongside you with different perspectives helps you solve a problem.”
While some people equate leadership with being the strongest person around, Trudeau sees it differently: “I think leadership has been much more about gathering people around a common cause, and enabling them to contribute to it.” Leadership “used to be a very tribal thing,” he said. But in this era, with such diversity in our society, “leadership has to be about pulling people together, people who are different in many ways, around common ideals and a common purpose.”
Solve, in its three-day conference, set out four new grand challenges for teams to take on, and offered $650 million in prizes and funding for the winning teams. Speaking of the way Solve addresses global problems by setting out these specific challenges and inviting anyone to participate in solving them, Trudeau said, “I’m really a fan of the grand challenge approach.” He cited a similar contest-based approach they had used in Canada to address the issue of involving more women in entrepreneurship, as a way of “empowering individuals to help in shaping their world. It’s not just about solutions, but actually creating a better, more engaged society for everyone.”
Trudeau spoke of the importance of allowing everyone to achieve their full potential. As a former high school teacher himself, he cited the example of an experiment in which a group of students was arbitrarily divided in two and assigned to different classes. The teacher of one group was told that those students were especially gifted, and the teacher of the other group was told that those students were the “slow” group, even though in fact both were the same. By the end of the school year, the supposedly “smart” class was in fact doing much better, and those in the supposedly less-smart group were in fact doing worse. Expectations had strongly influenced the outcomes. “People rise to the level you set for them,” he said.
MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, introduced Trudeau, who spoke before a capacity crowd at MIT’s Kesge Auditorium. He described the prime minister as a “practical optimist” who has invested heavily in science and technology to promote an innovation-based economy, and who has been a “passionate advocate for fighting climate change.”
Reif joked about the many similarities between MIT and Canada, including the fact that both have the beaver as their official mascot, both have bilingual leaders (“though I speak both languages with an accent,” he said), both have come up with popular sports to help get them through their long winters (“they have hockey, we have math”), and both are home to many brilliant Canadians.
After his talk and question-and-answer period at Kresge, Trudeau was given a tour of the MIT Media Lab, including presentations about the lab’s work on personal robotics and artificial intelligence, work on innovations in neuroscience including possible treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and on noninvasive neural stimulation, and on the use of artificial intelligence in education. Additional presentations included a description of the innovation ecosystem at MIT and its neighboring innovation district around Kendall Square. Media Lab Director Joi Ito, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Chancellor for Advancement Eric Grimson (who is a native of Saskatchewan), and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz were among those participating in the tour with Trudeau.
“We are all interconnected,” Trudeau said in his Solve talk, “in a way that we haven’t been trained as a species to think about.” While our evolution has provided a sense of how to work together in small groups, it has left us ill-prepared to understand how our small, local actions can collectively alter the world, he said. “The idea that actions we can take could somehow affect the whole planet is completely beyond our instincts, our personal understanding of the world. We need to change our instinctive approach to solving problems.”
“The choices we make have an impact,” he said. “We’re terrible at making choices. But we have to convince the citizens that we do have to do something about this [climate change] problem even if it doesn’t affect you now. We have to involve everyone in the solution we’re trying to create.”
Eight MIT students and recent alumni have been named winners of Fulbright U.S. Student Program research awards. An additional student received an award but declined the grant to pursue other opportunities.
Destinations for this year's Fulbright recipients include Germany, Switzerland, and other countries of the European Union; Chile; and Indonesia. Students' research interests range from astronomy, art criticism, architectural history, and biohacking to neuroscience, nuclear policy, and computer science.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Fulbright aims to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through international educational exchange. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is administered at MIT through the Office of Distinguished Fellowships. The eight 2018 MIT Fulbright Students are:
Julia Cha will graduate this spring with a bachelor of science in brain and cognitive sciences and minors in biology and music. In Göttingen, Germany, Cha will conduct neuroscience research on epigenetic pathways that mediate the relationship between early depression and later dementia. A three-time recipient of the MIT Emerson Fellowship in classical piano, Cha has performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra and at Carnegie Hall. She anticipates continuing her love of music by playing with the Göttingen Chamber Music Society. After completing her Fulbright year, Cha will matriculate at Harvard Medical School with the goal of becoming an academic physician.
Caitlin Fischer is a senior majoring in physics with a minor in political science. Her research in the European Union will focus on international nuclear policy and the role played by the EU in facilitating nuclear negotiations. For her community engagement component of Fulbright, she will engage in outreach to inform the general public on issues of nuclear security and disarmament in an international context. At MIT, Fischer has served as president of the Society of Physics Students, a student member of the Committee on Undergraduate Programs, and general manager of the MIT community radio station WMBR 88.1FM.
Skanda Koppula '16 is an MIT graduate student who will receive his master of engineering degree this spring. He graduated from MIT with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering and computer science in June 2016, has interned as a research scientist with Google and Yahoo, and is currently working with NVIDIA’s autonomous driving team. In Switzerland, Koppula will be researching with colleagues at ETH Zurich’s Department of Computer Science the design of a custom hardware processor for accelerating speech and language tasks. An avid motorsports engineer and co-founder of the new MIT/Delft Formula SAE driverless racecar team, Koppula hopes to participate with ETH Zurich’s racing team.
Mary Tsang MS '17 graduated from MIT in 2017 with a master of science in media arts and sciences, and has traveled the world as a non-binary artist and biohacker focused on strengthening feminist-oriented civil society participation. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Tsang will collaborate with the Microbiology Department at Gadjah Mada University and local community partner Lifepatch for citizen initiatives in art, science, and technology. Tsang’s interdisciplinary biohacking project seeks to extend feminist perspectives of care to local bodies of water. They will be developing low-cost yeast biosensors and fungal remediation protocols to enable grassroots investigation of endocrine-disrupting compounds in nearby rivers.
Jessica Varner is a fourth-year doctoral student in the History, Theory and Criticism program within the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. As a Fulbright Student in Germany, her architectural history research in Karlsruhe and the Baden-Württemberg region will explore how chemically constituted building materials developed from the 1850s to 1920s. Through the Fulbright program, Varner will conduct research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) Department of Architekturtheorie and at various academic and corporate archives, including those of the German chemical company BASF.
Emily Watlington will graduate in June with a master of science in architecture studies (SMArchS) from the History, Theory and Criticism program. Watlington is a recipient of the German-American Fulbright Commission’s Young Professional Journalists award. As an art critic, historian, and journalist in Berlin, she will research the institutions that have shaped contemporary German art criticism and write for German art publications. Watlington is also eager to attend lectures and exhibition openings in Berlin’s vibrant arts scene, and to host a lecture series for the general public on issues surrounding art criticism.
Luke Weisenbach is a senior majoring in physics who is headed to Germany to conduct astronomy research. At Heidelberg University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, he will work with Professor Joachim Wambsganss, who has collaborated closely with Weisenbach’s mentor at MIT, Professor Emeritus Paul Schechter. Weisenbach’s research will focus on the effects of gravitational microlensing, with the goal of learning more about how matter distributions within galaxies make quasars twinkle. He also looks forward to participating in Heidelberg’s astronomy public outreach programs. After completing his Fulbright, Weisenbach plans on pursuing a PhD in astronomy and continuing on to academia or research.
Andrew Xia '17 earned a bachelor of science in electrical engineering and computer science and mathematics from MIT in June 2017, and will complete his master of engineering degree in computer science in December. Xia is a recipient of the Fulbright Chile Science Initiative award. In Santiago, he will apply his computer science skills to modeling and preventing fare evasion for the city’s public transportation bus system. Xia will work with faculty from the industrial engineering and mathematical engineering departments at the Universidad de Chile. He hopes to explore Chile’s natural surroundings by biking and hiking in the Andes and engaging in photojournalism.
In 2017, MIT released a report entitled “A Global Strategy for MIT,” which offered a framework for the Institute’s ever-growing international activities in education, research, and innovation. The report, written by Richard Lester, associate provost for MIT overseeing international activities, offered recommendations organized around three broad themes: bringing MIT to the world, bringing the world to MIT, and strengthening governance and operations.
Specifically, Lester identified China, Latin America, and Africa as global priorities and regions where the Institute should expand engagement.
Reflecting that increased focus, the MIT-Africa initiative, led by Faculty Director Hazel Sive, a professor in the Department of Biology and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, has launched a new website, africa.mit.edu, to further formalize MIT’s commitment to expanding its already robust presence in Africa. Sive spoke with MIT News about the initiative’s future and Africa’s position as a global priority for MIT.
Q: Can you start by explaining what the MIT-Africa initiative is?
A: MIT-Africa began in 2014 as a mechanism to promote and communicate connections between MIT students, faculty, and staff, and African counterparts in the spheres of research, education, and innovation.
Together with the enthusiastic participation of many faculty, senior staff, and students, I originated the MIT-Africa initiative because a number of us who are either from Africa (I am from South Africa) or interested in the continent were doing important work together with African colleagues. We thought that the strong connections MIT was making in Africa should be understood more broadly, and that tremendous synergies would develop from sharing our work and promoting joint projects.
The initiative provided the first public face of MIT engagement with Africa, comprising a portal to disseminate information, and a means to invite potential collaborators to connect with MIT. We developed community through the MIT-Africa Interest Group; through supporting student groups such as the African Students Association and through a growing network of MIT students who have interned or worked in Africa.
MIT-Africa both consolidates Africa-relevant opportunities and directly promotes new programs. Multiple MIT initiatives and units include an Africa focus: the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), D-Lab, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), MITx, the Legatum Center, and others.
The tagline for MIT-Africa is “Collaborating for impact,” and through the pillars of research, education, and innovation, our goal is to develop even more substantial collaborations between the MIT community and in Africa.
Q: What are your thoughts on Africa’s inclusion as a priority in MIT’s recent global strategy report?
A: We are very pleased that MIT has recognized the importance of Africa in the world and as a focus for the Institute.
At the outset of the MIT-Africa initiative, we brought together an Africa Advisory Committee for strategic discussions. Last year, at the request of Richard Lester, we put together a strategic plan for MIT engagement in Africa, and the findings in this document interfaced with his decision to define Africa as a global priority for MIT.
In our plan, we made it clear that MIT priorities overlap with issues of vital importance to Africa — in tackling critical challenges relating to the environment, climate change, energy, population growth, food, health, education, industry, and urbanization. We are confident that this emphasis will facilitate expanded connections between MIT and our African collaborators and supporters.
A useful outcome of formalizing MIT’s priority of Africa engagement is recognition of our already extensive engagement with Africa. MIT has projects in half the countries of Africa! There are hundreds of examples in progress, from water utilization in Mozambique to entrepreneurship in South Africa and education in Nigeria. We are well-represented, and this engagement is growing rapidly.
The new website is both a way to acknowledge the outstanding scholarship and work already progressing on the continent, as well as a call to expand collaborations in a high impact way.
Q: What’s next for MIT-Africa?
A: Our strategic discussions identified key priorities over the next five years. These include: higher visibility of MIT in Africa through “MIT-Africa” branding, coordination in purpose and scope of MIT engagement in Africa, increased student internship and travel opportunities, increased research funding, new collaborations in education, expanded innovation presence, revised Africa-relevant education at MIT, and increased numbers of African trainees at MIT.
We are well on our way to meeting these goals, aided by a team with broad experience. For example, in 2014, we sent two students to Africa through MISTI, and last year we sent 92, so this has been a hugely fast-growing program. The MISTI Global Seed Fund Program newly includes Africa, and units such as J-WAFS, J-WEL, and ESI offer research funding that can be focused on Africa. A key aspect encompasses our alumni who envision a significant and influential African and African diaspora alumni group.
The distinguished MIT-Africa Working Group advises on policy, strategy, and implementation. Many members are leaders of other MIT initiatives, facilitating development of intersecting and productive joint programs with MIT-Africa.
All of this takes effort and collaborators, and we look forward to an expanded set of connections. We extend an invitation to potential collaborators: Come and speak with us. The expertise at MIT is enormous, and our focus on Africa-relevant engagement will have outcomes that advance intellectual, societal, and economic trajectories.