D-Lab Alumni

Phases of Change: a D-Lab Incubator and Community Health

By D-Lab alumna Kendra Johnson '09

Kendra Johnson demonstrating how to chlorinate water in La Encañada, Ecuador, 2009. 

Kendra Johnson '09, now a physician.


Incubator closed and sealed for 24 hours.


Melted phase change packets.


The cooler used for the incubator doubles as a way to safely carry water samples as they are collected. Santa Clotilde 2016.


Houses along the river in Santa Cloltilde.







My daily work as a family doctor can at times feel distant from my prior work as a D-Lab engineering student. It’s been a long time since I designed a device or did a calculation more complicated than simple arithmetic. However, I do feel there are some day-to-day connections: the ability to work directly with people to solve problems and the fact that technical knowledge is usually only a small piece of what is needed; human skills such as humility, openness, and teamwork are often much more important. And sometimes, when I am really lucky, I get a chance to bring my engineering and medical worlds together much more directly, as in my recent work on water and health in Peru.

Santa Clotilde, a remote town accessible only by boat on the Napo River in the rainforest of Peru, is home to the region’s only small rural hospital. There is a significant burden of waterborne disease in the area, including parasites such as giardia and roundworm that cause diarrhea, malnutrition, anemia, and occasionally death. When I traveled to Santa Clotilde to work as a physician in the hospital for the month of June, I wanted to bring water-testing supplies for the public health staff to assist in their efforts to reduce waterborne disease.

However, as the town of Santa Clotilde only has electricity for five hours per day and the samples must incubate for 24 hours, an electric incubator was not an option, so I put in a call to D-Lab to inquire if I might get access to the materials needed for a phase-change incubator. The phase change incubator is a low-cost, low-maintenance incubator to help test for microorganisms in water supplies developed by D-Lab founder Amy Smith when she was a graduate student..

I had first used a phase-change incubator ten years ago, during the summer of 2006. A freshman at MIT at the time, I had teamed up with another MIT student, Froylan Sifuentes (Chemical Engineering ’09) to spend our summer working with a small community in the Ecuadoran Amazon Rainforest called Santa Ana to improve their access to safe water. We had the generous financial support of an MIT Public Service Center Fellowship and mentorship from both D-Lab and the Environmental Engineering faculty. The most important tool we brought with us was the “Test Water Cheap” system developed by Amy Smith and D-Lab, which uses disposable baby bottle liners, which are sterile, and a syringe to pass water through a fine paper filter, which is then placed in a culture medium and incubated for 24 hours in a phase change incubator. The next day, tiny blue and red dots appear, each one representing an E. coli or other coliform bacteria, respectively. Count them up and you can quantify the level of fecal contamination and therefore disease risk in that water source. I will never forget the look on the faces of the women in Santa Ana when they were able to actually see and hold the bacteria they had always been told was in their water, making their children sick, and compare it to the clear sky-blue sample of boiled or chlorinated water. 

Ten years later, I brought another phase-change incubator to the rain forest, this time to the Peruvian side of the same greater Amazon river basin, to Santa Clotilde. I wanted to empower the local public health staff to bring that same sense of awe and understanding to their local community members as a tool in their efforts to reduce water born disease in the area. The information from the tests is invaluable – sometimes a water source that appears to be clean can have hundreds of times more contamination than another source the looks much dirtier. 

To me, the phase-change incubator really exemplifies the essence of D-Lab. It takes on an important problem in the developing world: how to incubate specimens without electricity, keeps the cost low compared to an electric incubator, and uses clever science and engineering to solve the problem. In this case, the incubator takes advantage of something we all learned in high school chemistry. Remember the plateau on those phase change diagrams? A material maintains the same temperature throughout the time it is changing phase, and the D-Lab team found a wax that melts at human body temperature and sealed it in plastic packets. Melt the packets of wax in boiling water until they are almost but not quite all liquid, place them in an ordinary portable cooler, close the lid, and 24 hours later the wax now mostly solid but still partially liquid so the contents are at essentially the same temperature. Simple, cheap, and brilliant.

The public health staff at Santa Clotilde rapidly learned the technique and are using it to develop infrastructure improvement and educational programs. The lab staff at the hospital were also intrigued about the idea of using an incubator like this for other sorts of cultures, such as blood cultures, to guide treating patients. As I look into my future as a physician caring for patients in remote areas of the world, I have renewed appreciation for my roots at D-Lab and as an engineer and am excited by the possibilities of appropriate technology for improvement of public health and health care in developing countries. 

"D-Lab continues to have a huge influence on how I work and how I approach life."

By D-Lab alumna Maddie Hickman

Maddie Hickman (far right, center) with D-Lab founder and co-director Amy Smith (far left), D-Lab: Development students, and community members, Botswana, 2015.

Maddie working at the Rickshaw Bank, Guwahati, India.

Installing water bottle lightbulbs with Amy Smith (bottom) and Kofi Taha (sandal alove right!) in Ghana.

Welding the hand-cycle at APDK, Nairobi, Kenya.

Making charcoal with PEN, at Takoradi Technical Institute in Ghana.

Becoming a D-Lab groupie

I first experienced D-Lab in the D-Lab: Development course my sophomore year—back in 2008, when D-Lab was a single classroom in the basement of the Infinite, and the machine shop was hidden in the adjacent loading dock. Since then, D-Lab has grown impressively, and I’ve tried my best to become and stay a D-Lab groupie.

My time in D-Lab taught me a lot: how to weld and use a hacksaw, how to travel and make the most of new experiences, (how to gumboot dance), and how to design and fail and try again. D-Lab also showed me the value of project-based learning, and in doing work that is personally meaningful. 

Travels to Ghana, Kenya, and India

The trip to Ghana with Amy and D-Lab: Development was my first time traveling overseas, and I immediately fell in love with traveling, with people, and with D-Lab. After that, I took D-Lab: Cycle Ventures, and then Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries (now D-Lab: Mobility). I spent the summer working at the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) in Nairobi with two other students, trying to integrate a petrol engine into a hand-cycle wheelchair. From there, I traveled to India to join D-Lab: Cycle Ventures instructor Gwyn Jones at the Rickshaw Bank in Guwahati, India, where we worked on bicycle rickshaws and a cargo bike. In my last year at MIT, I did my senior thesis with Gwyn, developing an electric assist for bicycle rickshaws in India. 

Co-founding an educational venture teaching hands-on learning

In my senior year, I joined up with a team of like-minded students to found the Practical Education Network (PEN), with the goal of sharing the “D-Lab-style” love of learning and tinkering through hands-on teaching. PEN hosts teacher training workshops, primarily in Ghana, to explore hands-on STEM activities that use low-cost, locally available materials. After graduating, I continued working with PEN for a year, traveling to teach in Ghana and Peru, and in Boston. 

Staying involved

Since graduating in 2011, I’ve been lucky enough to stay involved in D-Lab: I’ve done contract work and engineering for D-Lab: Health and the D-Lab Scale-Ups program, worked in the D-Lab workshop with shop manager Jack Whipple, built bicycle rickshaws, co-led a D-Lab: Development trip to Botswana with Amy in 2014, followed Amy to Ghana for a Creative Capacity Building training, taken D-Lab: Earth, and hung around the D-Lab workshop to learn and continue to work on new projects (a small-scale D-Lab Aquaponics system, and SurgiBox, most recently). 

Outside of D-Lab, I’ve followed a bit of a haphazard path since college: I taught high school physics in a "flipped classroom" for a year, biked cross-country teaching engineering/tinkering workshops, worked as an engineer for an astrophysics lab, and just started working full-time at Harvard in undergraduate engineering education—running part of a machine shop, helping students with their capstone projects, and supporting hands-on projects both in and out of the classroom. 

Continued influence of D-Lab

D-Lab continues to have a huge influence on how I work and how I approach life. It’s given me an ongoing community of friends and mentors to whom I regularly go for advice, and connected me to all sorts of interesting projects, inspiring people, and ongoing learning. Amy once told me that D-Lab has the tendency to “derail” students from traditional employment (sometimes to the chagrin of their parents); this has definitely been the case for me, in a way that I’m extremely thankful for. 

D-Lab has made me better at seeking out new experiences, better at hands-on design and engineering, and better at thinking intentionally about what I’m doing in the world—although I still haven’t quite figured that out!

Three D-Lab alumnae, Four questions

Tiffany Guo, Class of 2009

"D-Lab emphasized that we were co-creators, and by listening and respecting the communities and their values, we would be able to affect the most positive change."

Caroline Hane-Weijman, Class of 2011

"D-Lab has given me a roadmap for what type of work I want to get back to doing, because it is where I found meaning and purpose."

Tina (Ro) Leimbach, Class of 2010

"D-Lab gave me the opportunity to see how I could use my technical background in engineering to improve the world around me."

Last month, D-Lab co-director Victor Grau Serrat and development officer Peggy Eysenbach traveled to New York City to present at an MIT Connection event for New York City-area MIT alumni. D-Lab alumnae Tiffany Guo '09, Caroline Hane-Weijman '11, and Tina Leimbach (formerly Tina Ro) '10 all spoke on a panel about their D-Lab experience and how it had influenced their lives since graduation!

 TIFFANY GUO, Class of 2009

Tiffany was part of D-Lab I on the January 2008 trip on the pilot trip to Peru. She was also part of the first iteration of D-Lab: Health in Spring 2009 with Jose Gomez-Marquez, which included a needs-finding trip to Nicaragua. 

1) What's the most important thing you learned at D-Lab?

Empathy and cultural awareness. From the very beginning of class, D-Lab emphasized learning about the country and culture you would be visiting, and listening to the people you were hoping to help. D-Lab emphasized that we were co-creators, and by listening and respecting the communities and their values, we would be able to affect the most positive change.

2) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced the work you do?

In every way! I’m currently an MD-PhD student at Columbia, completing my PhD in point-of-care diagnostics for resource-limited settings. We recently took a field-trial to Rwanda to test our devices in the hands of local health workers. More broadly, when developing medical innovations in the US, you have to understand the complex interplay between users, market, and stakeholders, which all of D-Lab’s projects taught. It’s one of the most difficult, but also the most critical lessons for engineers to learn for successful design.

3) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced your values? 

Empathy and cultural awareness will be critical values in my future career. Respecting a patient’s values and perspective is critical to treating a patient properly, not just the right medications. Creating successful medical innovations requires understanding of the stakeholders (patient, medical system, etc.).

4) What makes you consider yourself a "D-Lab alumna"?

D-Lab was the first time I realized how my education could translate to impact on my community. And once I realized that was possible, I wanted to keep going! I was fortunate to be an early member of the Global Poverty Initiative at MIT, which had the goal of increasing awareness about global poverty and different ways MIT student could contribute with their expertise. I currently work on developing global health technologies. After graduation, I hope to continue developing medical innovations, and will take with me all the lessons I learned from D-Lab!


1) What's the most important thing you learned at D-Lab?

- User-centric design, cultural respect, empathy, and co-creation.  

 When 'innovating' for developing countries, many have taken the route of using products / solutions we have in developed countries and making them cheaper (cutting corners on materials or manufacturing). D-Lab teaches a bottom-up approach with the end user in mind - taking into account social, economic, cultural, gender, race, political, climate, and resource factors - so the resulting solution is sustainable and truly for the user it was intended.

We were taught to go into a community and listen, then work with our partners to co-create a solution so that through the process we also empower them to continue innovating.

- Resourcefullness and 'get it done' attitude

With the work we did at D-Lab impact is not measured by our ideas on a piece of paper but how we improve the living conditions for someone. A grade means little in the context of the work we do. It is a reality check for many aspiring students - I loved that.

Being around innovators in places with little resources is extremely inspirational - the world is a living textbook and a junk yard filled with treasures!

- Finding real meaning in the work I did.

2) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced the work you do?

I am current a product manager at a tech startup so designing for a user, showing empathy, co-creating is are all important pillars. And of course being resourceful and getting things done :)  

D-Lab has given me a roadmap for what type of work I want to get back to doing, because it is where I found meaning and purpose.

3) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced your values?

  • Leading my life and making choices with a sense of purpose and perspective.
  • Listen first, show respect, make no assumptions, and co-create.  

4) What makes you consider yourself a "D-Lab alumna"?

I am very proud to be an alum. I feel it was the central part of my education at MIT and is a big part of my identity today. I am a huge supporter for the work D-Lab continues to do and like I said, it has shaped my vision for how I want to spend my life contributing in the future!

TINA (RO) LEIMBACH, Class of 2010

Tina was a part of a 2010 January D-Lab trip to India. It was a pilot trip for D-Lab. Jessica Huang was her trip leader. 

1) What's the most important thing you learned at D-Lab?

The most important thing that I learned through D-Lab was the importance of collaboration. On my D-Lab trip, we worked on identifying key partner organizations with the hope of creating a program in an urban area of India that would be sustainable and meaningful to the community. 

2) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced the work you do?

D-Lab gave me the opportunity to see how I could use my technical background in engineering to improve the world around me. After graduating, I worked as an engineer but yearned for the opportunity to improve the world around me. I currently work as a teacher in a high-need urban area. I do not use my technical background but enjoy working in a field where I believe I am improving the lives of those in my community. 

3) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced your values?

D-Lab gave me the opportunity to challenge my beliefs of what it means to be improving the lives of others and what is the best way to go about improving the lives of others. Through my trip, I came away feeling humbled. Overall, I feel a great sense of responsibility to work towards improving the lives of others because I have been given so many opportunities.

4) What makes you consider yourself a "D-Lab alumNA"?

I consider myself a D-Lab alumna because I am grateful for the opportunity that D-Lab has provided me. My trip and experience challenged me to scrutinize my values and beliefs at the time. The trip also challenged me to pursue a line of work that I find meaningful.

D-Lab Alumni Blog: Netia McCray '14

Netia McCray.

Netia welding in the D-Lab shop.

Netia assisting a young participant in assembling her Solar USB Charger at a Mbadika Workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

A young girl assembling a prototype Mbadika Solar USB Charger Kit with the Mbadika partners at WoeLab in Lome, Togo. 


The following is one of a series of blogs by D-Lab alumni. Netia McCray was a Political Science major who graduated from MIT in 2014.


1. What you did at D-Lab while your were a MIt undergraduate?

After attempting every semester since my freshman year to participate in a D-Lab course, in my senior year I was fortunate enough to win the lottery and participate in D-Lab's newest addition to their course offerings; Design for Scale. 

In D-Lab: Design for Scale, I was able to develop a firm foundation in terms of the knowledge and skills necessary in order to design solutions for "the other 90 percent" of the planet. I worked with a team on a project titled Re-Design of Bicycle-Cart Hybrid for Mass-Manufacturing for a Lagos-based recycling company Wecyclers (the founder Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola is an alumna of the MIT Sloan School of Management and of the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program).

2. What have you been doing since you left MIT?

After completing D-Lab's Design for Scale course in Fall 2013, I was inspired to develop a solution in order to assist youth in emerging markets in learning the basics of product design and development in order to develop hardware solutions to improve their lives and those in their communities. Based on my experience working with youth in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, I wanted to develop a line of do-it-yourself (DIY) kits through my nonprofit, Mbadika, that would provide a youth a hands-on method of learning the basics of hardware. 

During MIT’s January Independent Activities Period, I developed a prototype, a DIY Solar USB Charger kit, in order to introduce youth to electronics prototyping through the construction of a practical consumer product. After testing our initial prototype with youth in the Cambridge-Boston area, we wanted to focus on testing our idea with our target group; Sub-Saharan African youth. 

In the following months, my team and I were able to fundraise through the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, MIT $100K, and the Millennium Campus Network enough funds in order to further develop our initial prototype, test our kits on the ground, and develop key partnerships in South Africa. Therefore, before the ink could dry on my new diploma, I traveled to Southern Africa for three months in order to gather feedback from youth regarding our Solar USB Charger kits including at Maker Faire Africa in Johannesburg. 

Based on the feedback we received from over 150 youth, we are now working with our local partners EduGreen and R-Labs, in order to further develop our Solar USB Charger Kit for local manufacturing and distribution in South Africa in 2016. 

3. How did your D-Lab experiences influence what you're doing now and how you approach the work you're doing?

Before participating in "Design for Scale," I was already running a nonprofit, Mbadika, focused on fostering youth-driven innovation and entrepreneurship through hands-on workshops in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, despite the success of Mbadika in terms of inspiring youth to explore careers as innovators and entrepreneurs via our workshops, I felt that our efforts were only reaching a small percentage of youth. Our method, even though successful on a very small scale, wasn't scalable and would be difficult to make sustainable. 

Shortly after the class began, I presented a poster about Mbadika for a student poster session at D-Lab’s Scaling Development Ventures conference. At that time, I had only presented our DIY Solar USB Charger Kit to my classmates as a part of a IAP Startup Class. Despite having a close relationship with a few D-Lab staff members, I was hesitant to share my idea because I didn't want to be ridiculed for spending my time on a project that was too "idealistic" or "naïve." The feedback I received from SDV helped me gain the confidence, as well as support, to further develop the idea throughout the Spring and submit the project for on-campus and off-campus competitions. 

Since freshman year, I've always admired D-Lab's focus on working hands-on with their "clients" (i.e. communities) in order to develop appropriate, sustainable solutions that address the needs of the client and can create an impact beyond the initial client. I knew that if I wanted Mbadika to not simply become another failed social initiative by a naive and idealistic undergradudate, we would have to change gears. Hence, my main motivation to participate in D-Lab was to learn how I could incorporate D-Lab's methods and knowledge in order to increase the impact of Mbadika. While in D-Lab, I quickly realized the secret formula wasn't a complicated method but simply ensuring that you keep your ear to the ground at all times and listen. 

Once we started closely listening to our former students and partners, we realized that our clients in Sub-Saharan Africa didn't need workshops focused on becoming innovators and entrepreneurs but rather methods to teach basic product design and development to youth. Therefore, we re-structured Mbadika with a few key partners in order to focus on the development of solutions to assist youth in learning product design and development in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

Now, we ensure that we gather feedback from our clients in order to ensure that we are designing not only to address their needs but for maximum impact. No matter whether its shipping prototypes for youth in Togo to assemble and send us their opinions or jumping on a Skype call to brainstorm with a hardware workshop coordinator in Kenya, we make sure to keep our ear to the ground. If you talk with our team and partners, you will realize the enormous influence D-Lab has had on our organization. 

4. What's next for you?

At the moment, I'm focused on establishing Mbadika's international operations, especially in South Africa. For instance, we are launching our new workshop and micro-manufacturing center this upcoming Summer in Cape Town, South Africa. The center will provide youth a physical location to gain hands-on experience working with hardware and electronics as well as a location for Mbadika to locally manufacture its line of DIY kits. 

In addition, we are working with our local partners and schools in order to develop a Design Competition in which youth can submit their ideas for the next Mbadika DIY kit in exchange for a monetary prize and the opportunity to participate in the process of transforming their idea into a manufactured consumer product. Last, but certainly not least, we are engaging in exciting new partnerships with the U.S. State Department and the AfriLabs Network in order to ensure that our impact is not limited to youth who participate in our workshops in Cape Town. 

The past few months with Mbadika have been a blast and I'm excited to see what lies ahead. 

D-Lab Alumna Sydney Beasley

Sydney Beasley, D-Lab alumna (Bachelor of Science, Civil and Environmental Enginnering, MIT 2014)

With D-Lab: Cycle Ventures in Assam.

Water filter survey in Gujarat.

Rainwwater-harvesting, Mexco City

"D-Lab played an important role in shaping my undergraduate experience as well as my professional goals. It introduced me to the role that technology can play in international development and the integrated approach that needs to be taken in deploying these technologies."


My D-Lab involvement began in my sophomore year when I took D-Lab: Cycle Ventures. I learned about various bicycle-powered technologies and followed it up with a trip to Assam, India in January to work in a rickshaw factory. 

My senior year, I joined the Design for Scale course, where we looked at various technologies that already functioned but needed to be redesigned to reach a greater consumer base. In the fall of my senior year, I was also an undergraduate assistant for the D-Lab freshman seminar D-Lab: Discovery. Additionally, the spring of my senior year I worked as a tour guide, showing families and visitors D-Lab’s technologies and explaining the expanding scope of the program.

Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation

In my senior year, I was an intern for the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), a USAID supported program partnered with D-Lab  to evaluate technologies used in the developing world. I initially worked on student engagement strategies and later transitioned to research with the sustainability research team. Following my graduation, I traveled to India with this team to evaluate household water filters in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. I surveyed and interviewed community members to learn about factors that contributed to the success of various filters. In February, I will travel again with the sustainability team to investigate water quality test kits used in rural villages.

Isla Urbana, Mexico City

Since September, I have been working in Mexico City with a non-governmental organization called Isla Urbana that is installing rainwater-harvesting systems. The project is focused on combatting the growing water crisis in the city by providing homes, schools, and communities with a sustainable water source. Isla Urbana combines the installation of the systems with educational activities for both kids and adults, and also performs follow up visits to ensure the adoption of the systems. I will continue to intern with this group after my research project in India.

Working in the intersection of technology and development

All of these experiences have shaped my desire to continue to work in the intersection of technology and development. I plan to attend graduate school and build upon the knowledge that I’ve gained. I hope to learn the skills necessary to tackle water and sanitation projects around the world. Ultimately, I hope to successfully implement low-cost life-changing technologies for people that need them the most. 

Read more about Sydney Beasely's involvement in D-Lab in the following blog:
MIT Scaling Development Ventures Poster Session 2014, 02/19/2014 



D-Lab Alumnus Elliot Avila: From Boston to Nigeria to Tanzania

Elliot Avila, D-Lab alumnus (Bachelor of Science, Mechanical Engineering, MIT 2014)

Working on the cargo tricycle for Wecylers in Lagos.

Wecyclers colleague at work.

Working with the avocado processing team at IDDS.

Guacamole, anyone?

Working on the MultiCrop Thresher on an earlier trip to Global Cycle Solutions.

Elliot Avila graduated from MIT in 2014 having taken D-Lab: DevelopmentD-Lab:Design, and D-Lab: Cycle Ventures. He traveled with D-Lab to India to work on a solar dryer project as well as natural crayon manufacturing. On a D-Lab trip to Tanzania, he worked on a bicycle-powered corn sheller and a multicrop thresher. He also completed an undergraduate research project and his senior thesis was on a D-Lab project (see below).

In an interview early this year, Elliot said, “When I arrived at MIT, I was interested in science for the sake of science. Now it feels like the problems I work on have much more meaning, and it’s a constant motivator for me to take on new challenges . . . I expected that I would either end up working for a financial firm or at a lab like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or NASA. Now I’m much more interested in how science and technology play a role in people’s every-day lives. D-Lab was a place where I learned the value of my education and the opportunities it affords me."


Thesis to Implementation: Designing a New Cargo Trycicle for Wycyclers in Lagos, Nigeria

My summer officially started after a half-awake walk across MIT’s campus to turn in my undergraduate thesis, which was on the use of computer software to design and analyze a cargo tricycle. I was working with D-lab Scale-ups fellow Bilikiss Abiola, founder of Wecyclers, to try and improve the performance of their cargo tricycle, called the Wecycle.

After packing up my things in Boston, I had the pleasure of traveling to Nigeria with two D-Lab Staff members, Scale-Ups fellowship manager Eric Reynolds and shop manager Jack Whipple, to implement my thesis work. After two weeks, we parted ways, satisfied with leaving behind a gigantic new Wecycle.

Developing a Low-Cost Avocado Oil Extraction Process at IDDS, Tanzania

I left Nigeria to become a participant in this year’s International Development Innovation Summit (IDDS) held in Arusha, Tanzania. My project team included four other participants from Tanzania, Kenya, and India. Together, we investigated ways to increase the value of avocados, eventually settling on developing a low-cost avocado oil extraction process.

The project itself was a fun (and delicious) challenge, but my favorite thing about IDDS is the people. It might seem strange to feel at home with 60 people from around the world in just a week or two, but apparently at IDDS it’s a totally normal feeling. And that’s a wonderful thing.

A New Job: Product Development Engineer at Global Cycle Solutions

By far, the best part of this journey is that it kept going. After IDDS, I stayed in Arusha to start my new job as a product development engineer with Global Cycle Solutions (GCS), founded by MIT alumna and D-Lab Scale-ups fellow Jodie Wu. I see my friends from IDDS daily, and have even made some visits to continue the avocado project and see our community partners.

I’ll continue living in Arusha for at least the next year, at which point I’ll have to figure out whether I should stay or start a new journey. Until then, I’ll be here in Tanzania, patiently awaiting the next avocado harvest season and a visit from this year’s D-lab students.

Read more about Elliot Avila's D-Lab projects in the following blogs:
Scale-Ups Report from Tanzania: Growing the MultiCrop Thresher team, testing prototypes, 08/05/2013 

With help of IDI and UROP, students return to Avani, 11/08/2012 



D-Lab Alumni: Interview with Matthew Mazzotta, SMVisS 09

By Nancy Adams & Matthew Mazzotta

Building a biodigester, Ranikhet, India, 2009



















Matthew Mazzotta is a conceptual artist who creates permanent and temporary public interventions that range from opening up new social spaces inside the built environment, to addressing more pressing environmental issues, but always with a focus on community and public participation. As a graduate student at MIT in 2008, Matthew took the D-Lab: Development course and traveled to Ranikhet, India with D-Lab to build a biodigester with a local community partner (see image, top left).

1) What's the most important thing you learned at D-Lab?

The most important thing I learned was how to approach a community’s problem as an outsider. I learned to consider a specific location’s unique context and to understand that the people that live there need to be directly involved in any solution since they will be the ones living with it. It was D-Lab's approach of looking at the context-specific relationships between people and their environment and community and the focus on developing solutions that are environmentally sustainable and socially appropriate that helped me see a way that I could participate.

2) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced the work you do?

I am an artist who travels the world to make community-based public artwork. I get invited to work with different communities and the projects I do usually revolve around coming into a community and trying to figure out a framework that draws the local people in to have an experience that is unique and relevant specifically to them. I never just provide content or give my ideas about a place because I know I am an outsider. The work always comes out of understanding that the people that live there know the issues of their community better than I could ever. My work is about designing a framework where the people are drawn into the artwork through their own curiosity, which in turn, results in them participating in something unrehearsed and having a deeper exchange with their neighbors that they would not usually have. The artwork is ultimately a catalyst for dialogues that have been waiting to happen. 

Recently I created a work in York, Alabama which started with asking people to bring something from their living rooms and staging an outdoor living room in the middle of the street for a conversation about what were the most pressing issues they faced as a town. From these conversations we first identified a lack of public space and then came up with a project that took the most notorious abandoned house downtown and used any salvageable materials from it and the land it sits on to make a new house that physically transforms into a 100-seat open-air outdoor theater anytime the community wants to host a performance or a movie. The project is called Open House (images 2-5 left)– here is a five minute video of the work.

I believe that my approach has always been to use the local materials of the site and to design projects that highlight the sentiments, concerns and interests of the people. Instead of thinking I have an answer for these communities, it is more about creating conditions through a participatory situation that aims at extracting something that is already there, but just under the surface. 

I really like D-lab’s strategy of developing tangible solutions that meet the needs defined by the community and utilizing readily available local material so that they can be built, operated and maintained by the people of these communities with very limited outside assistance. Even though this was very much in line with my whole approach to making artwork, it was great to see it so clearly a priority and put in such a concise and intentional way.

Another artwork I did in Cambridge, Mass called the Park Spark Project (images 6-8 left) was directly linked to my time in D-Lab when we went to Northern India to look at biogas and methane digesters. We saw some women there capturing naturally occurring methane from cow waste in their household bio-digesters to cook their meals and make chai. I had been interested in digesters before going, but to see the simple small-scale household digesters was so informative. I had known about the big high-tech digesters we have here on US farms, but to see such a simple passive system working so well with the resources that were available to them was great. When I came back to the US I happened to go by a dog park with a friend and I saw a garbage can full of dog waste. I told my friend “In other countries that big pile of animal waste is seen as an energy source.” That got me thinking about using the dog waste to power a street lamp in a dog-park, so I created the Park Spark Project

In this case, I designed the Park Spark Project to be appropriate to its location; it just happens that instead of focusing on a third world county, I made a major city in the US the site. So I thought about employing the same strategies, using local resources (dog waste), involving local people to use and maintain it (dog walkers), and thinking about environmental implications (burning the naturally occurring methane, a potent greenhouse gas, reduces its impact on the environment). I also made the whole project ‘open-source’ through the Park Spark website so communities could build their own. On the website are the plans for how to build a publicly-fed digester that uses dog waste, how to raise money to fund it, and how to organize people in the community to keep it functioning. See a video about Park Spark here.

3) How has that important thing you learned at D-Lab influenced your values?

I think my values in terms of my ethics have not been changed. However, it did broaden my perspective on my relationship to people around the world and how I am implicated, either, directly and indirectly, in their lives. 

4) What makes you consider yourself a "D-Lab alum"?

My time with D-lab was really such a enriching first-hand experience, being able to come into peoples lives and try to problem solve with them. I think the principles and case studies we did really added structure to my ideas and it is easy to see how it plays right into the work I do now.


Matthew is teaching an introduction to visual arts class at MIT this semester. Check it out here

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