Baran Mensah: Savoring college life in a new country

MIT senior Baran Mensah recalls taking apart his toys as a child, curious to see how every piece worked. When his mother explained to him what an engineer was, he knew that’s what he wanted to be.

Mensah wasn’t particularly familiar with the culture of MIT while growing up in Ghana. But for the last four years, he has dug deeply into many aspects of college life, choosing a major in mechanical engineering and a minor in music, and exploring a wide array of extracurricular activities. In addition to holding significant leadership roles in the Chocolate City living group, he has performed with Sakata Afrique, MIT’s Afro-Caribbean dance group, and belongs to the Rho Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.

His approach to research internships has been equally expansive. During his first year, he worked as a residential facilitator for the Office of Minority Education’s Interphase EDGE program, which invites admitted MIT students to campus before the academic year begins. Having benefited from the program himself, Mensah says he wanted to give back as a facilitator. He also helped develop a software toolkit to expose K-12 students to the field of soft robotics, in the Conor Walsh Lab at Harvard University. Most recently, he was a missions operations intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on automating command generation for the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite.

After graduation, Mensah intends to attend graduate school and continue his studies in mechanical engineering. He hopes to then work on robotics hardware, perhaps for legged or biomimetic robots, and to stay in the Boston area for a while. While he’s remaining open to new opportunities as they arise, he ultimately hopes use his engineering skills to help improve socioeconomic conditions in his home country of Ghana.

MIT News interviewed Mensah to learn more about his life as a student.

Q: What is your favorite area of mechanical engineering?

A: My specific focus is robotics. As long as I can work on a piece of hardware controlled by some software that does cool and interesting things, I will be happy. Soft robotics would be an interesting route to pursue but I’m not married to any specific branch as of yet. One particularly interesting project I worked on involved a swimming robot that used electromagnetic actuation coupled with soft robotics to mimic the swimming of a fish.

I think while the soft robotics part was extremely novel and fascinating, I was more excited about the mimicry of nature using robotics. Robots such as the MIT cheetah or robots at Boston Dynamics are what excite me the most at this moment. It’s an intersection of not only mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, but biology as well. I often find that the more subject areas a project intersects with, the more exciting it is. 

Q: Tell us about your communities on campus.

A: My primary one is Chocolate City at MIT. We’re able to foster a community that allows a lot of people to feel comfortable at MIT. It’s about 30 people, so you’re able to get close friends and bonds, which sometimes can be really hard. And we really push people as well to be involved in the community and active.

The next big one is my dance group, Sakata Afrique. Dancing is something that I didn’t really think I would get into, but I got here and really enjoyed it. And it’s now a big part of my life. It’s really important for that reason, but also because an Afro-Caribbean dance group allows me to display and show my culture, in a sense.

I’m a member of the Rho Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. It’s the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American men, and this chapter serves the campuses of several universities, so from that, I’ve been able to interface with a lot of different people from outside of MIT, which is great. And it’s allowed me to develop myself as a man and learn a lot of different things.

Q: What are some of your favorite memories from your time with these groups?

A: For Chocolate City, one of my fondest memories is the first party that we threw in February of 2021. When we came back to campus a lot of people didn’t really know who we are, and we needed to revive the group. The day of the party, we knew we’d sold 500 tickets, but actually seeing all these people coming in, I was like, “Wow, we really did this.” It was a big thing for me, because this was the first time I’d ever been responsible for marketing an event this large.

For Sakata, a highlight was last year when we had our show, Afro Shake. Right before we went on stage to dance it was a rush of emotions, because this was something that me and my co-choreographer had been working on for basically a whole year. And this was the accumulation of all of our work.

In my fraternity, we had a poetry event in February of last year. Seeing how everybody enjoyed the event and learned something new really felt good because it was me and my line brother’s first program, so it was a big thing that we put a lot of work into and seeing that pay off was really amazing.

Q: How did you balance everything with your studies?

A: Time management is extremely important. The busier I got, the crazier my calendar would look. I’d have times when I scheduled when I had lunch. If I only had one hour to do an assignment I had to make the hour count. It was definitely very hard, but I think it’s a big teaching tool. You have a lot more time than you think you do. A lot of it just goes to waste. There’s a lot of ways you can very strategically [optimize] your time.

Q: What do you do in your down time?

A: Dancing is a big one. Working out, if I have time. I’m into music. I’m a music minor, actually. I play guitar often, as it’s a really good outlet, [and] especially good for expanding my musical diversity because I feel like the type of music that I listen to on a daily basis is not the same type of music that I play on the guitar. So, it really forces me to listen to other types of music, which I enjoy.

Q: Have you had a music minor the whole time you’ve been in undergraduate?

A: No. Coming to MIT, I wanted to concentrate in Spanish for my [humanities, arts, and social sciences requirement] because I’d done Spanish for nine or 10 years. But then seeing the wealth of music classes, I realized this was something that I really wanted to take advantage of. I think music was something that I always wanted to do, but I never really had the resources available until now. With music and with other areas of life, what I’ve learned is that sometimes it might serve you well to just not know what your plan is, and be very open, and see what happens.

Q: Even without a specific plan, do you think you might return to Ghana in the future?

A: I do hope to return at some point, and that I will be able to contribute to uplifting my country in a socioeconomic sense. I envision setting up a foundation that not only offers access to novel technology to solve complex issues, but also helps provide high-quality, affordable educational opportunities. Although I have had this goal for a while, my friend Wilhem Hector has inspired me to look at driving change in this way. I am still unsure about how, exactly, I will go about doing this, but with every passing day, the road forward is slightly clearer.