School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Jiwon Park: Reaching Out to the World

MIT senior leads diverse projects to help women and students in developing countries.
Kate Telma | MIT News correspondent

As a high school student, Jiwon Park traveled weekly across her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to tutor Burmese refugees. They told her stories of escaping through the jungle and waiting in refugee camps.

“Doing that in high school really opened my eyes to the problems of people in my city,” says Park, an MIT senior. “Since then, I’ve been interested in finding a way to be most valuable to people in need around the world.”

A chemistry major, Park balances polymer research while leading social entrepreneurship and public health projects that have taken her to four different countries during her undergraduate years. “MIT has not only provided a very valuable classroom experience, but also given me all these other tools in research, technology innovations, and social entrepreneurship that I can take and [use to] help people in developing countries,” she says.

Globetrotting for good

As she settled in at MIT, Park began looking for concrete ways to help those most in need. One of her first steps was to join the MIT Global Poverty Initiative, a student-led organization that engages the MIT community to fight poverty.

Her first year with GPI found her working on the du’Anyam Project (Indonesian for “Mothers Weaving”), a social entrepreneurship project that seeks to alleviate poor maternal health and high rates of miscarriage in Indonesia. For financial reasons, women on remote islands perform heavy agricultural labor throughout their pregnancies. Park’s team proposed providing women with an alternative revenue by helping them leverage an existing skill — weaving wicker crafts out of pandan leaves.

After winning the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge in 2014 with this proposal, Park travelled to Bali on behalf of du’Anyam to meet with hotel executives to establish a business partnership for selling slippers and ornamental boxes, journeyed to Surabaya to explore manufacturing sources that could put finishing touches on the women’s products, and then flew by tiny propeller plane to the rural community of Flores to meet the 10 pilot participants.

Park has continued to serve as a student assistant and panelist for the IDEAS Global Challenges. “I get to read all the proposals and work with different students who are entering that year,” Park says. “It’s been a fun experience.”

After her freshman year, Park’s interest in public health led her to intern at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India, through MISTI-India. Her research focused on the effect of preoperative conditions on surgery outcomes in the context of clinics outside of major cities. Park observed cataract surgeries, LASIK surgeries, and cornea transplants, while also visiting rural eye clinics throughout the summer.

Before returning to the U.S., Park participated in two hackathons in India — once as a hacker and once as a mentor. At the Engineering the Eye Workshop Park worked with a team to develop a portable keratometer, a device that measures the curvature of eyes in order to detect disease. She then traveled to Nashik to join members of the MIT Media Lab and to mentor a team at the Kumbathon, a hackathon devoted to planning for the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage of 2015.

Last summer, an “eye-opening” internship at the World Bank through the MIT Washington D.C. Summer Internship Program crystallized some of these international experiences for Park, showing how her diverse projects could fit together. “It allowed me to integrate my interests in social entrepreneurship and international development and witness how policies are made at a high level,” she says.

Deep dive into research

Park conducts polymer research through a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) in the lab of Firmenich Career Development Associate Professor Jeremiah Johnson. Her focus has been on developing a synthesis strategy to introduce metal organic cages into polymers, and devising systems to use brush-arm star polymers for drug delivery — essentially creating a large molecule that delivers several drugs at once.

“If you can imagine a star, each arm has a different drug. We are loading multiple cancer drugs, [and testing] different combinations of different cancer drugs, and then controlling the release of those drugs in the body,” Park explains.

“I think [my work is] all very interconnected. Maybe my polymer research is not directly helping the people in the Philippines that I am working with, but I connect [my research to international projects] because of my mission to bring technology and science to developing countries. At MIT I consider my research a way to deep-dive into the actual science and technology — to be at the forefront of it — and then over the summers and the IAPs [Independent Activities Periods] I have travelled to different countries to witness the impact,” Park says.

Park is also an accomplished pianist. During her first and second years at MIT, she was chosen as an Emerson scholar, which provided an opportunity to take private music lessons with MIT faculty. She won the MIT Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition her freshman year, and performed the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 with the symphony in the spring of 2014. Park is also an MIT Arts Scholar. Lately, she has set aside her music studies in order to focus on her international and research endeavors.

Coding mutual understanding

Park continued working with GPI throughout her time at MIT; this year, she is serving as co-president with fellow MIT student Amanda Wu. Her latest project has again brought her overseas, this time to the Philippines. In December of 2015, Park teamed up with her younger brother, Sang Jun Park, a sophomore at Columbia University, to launch a program there called CodePhil.

“The basic idea of CodePhil is to reach out to rural high school students in the Philippines and teach them coding. [We are] using coding as a way to empower these students, and expose them to new types of careers,” Park says.

After winning the U.S. Department of State Laura W. Bush Traveling Fellowship, Park, her brother, and three other students from MIT and Columbia travelled to Northern Samar, one of the most impoverished regions of the Philippines, to pilot their curriculum last summer. 

The team spent three weeks teaching 75 high school students in the town of Lavezares how to code in Scratch, a free language and platform developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Next, students learned to apply their new coding skills by programing tiny, round programmable robots called Spheros.

Park met with mayor of Lavezares; partnered with the Rotary Club of Catarman, a larger, neighboring town; and spoke with a cultural ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Manilla. She also signed a memorandum of understanding with the chair of the education department at the University of Eastern Philippines. Going forward, CodePhil plans to train college students at the university to teach CodePhil’s curriculum in high schools throughout the year as part of their extension programs, and to expand to more high schools. Park is in the process of making CodePhil a 501(c)(3) organization.

Beyond MIT

After graduating, Park plans to spend some time working in management consulting before pursuing a medical or MD/PhD degree.

“At MIT I have done so many different things, ranging from polymer research, to working with the government and international development organizations. I really like the diversity in experience, and I want to be able to continue that full time.”

She sees herself someday working at the interface of medicine and research or in the public sector — maybe at the World Bank or the World Health Organization — to influence health care policies with global impacts.