Victor Grau Serrat: My journey with MIT D-Lab: (personal) Discovery and (professional) Development

By Victor Grau Serrat, former D-Lab Co-Director

Victor demonstrating woodworking skills at a Creative Capacity Building workshop in Guatemala. 


Victor teaching one of the foundation course of D-Lab, D-Lab: Design.


Victor unloading equipment in Guatemala.


Victor (left) with Sid Pai '14 a D-Lab student who went on to be a D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow with his social enterprise Protoprint.


Victor (right) with D-Lab Associate Director Kofi Taha (left) and a SolCom partner (center). 







Victor Grau Serrat served as D-Lab Co-Director from 2008 until the beginning of this month. Below, he reflects on eight years at D-Lab!

It was an otherwise unremarkable morning in the early fall of 2003, when I stopped by Amy Smith’s shared office at the Edgerton Center, and I shyly introduced myself from the doorway. She was busily working on her laptop but paused, smiled welcomingly, and we chatted briefly. I was fresh out of graduate school looking for a job, she offered a couple of suggestions, and I landed not one but two part-time jobs within weeks. Two phenomenal jobs, I should add, one with Partners in Health, and one with an MIT Media Lab spinoff.

The previous year, the D-Lab we know today had come into being, started by Amy—an inventor, educator, and “MIT lifer” as she likes to describe herself. People were talking about Amy's new hands-on course at the intersection of low-cost technology and international development that included a field trip. What a great value proposition. I tagged along with my wife Marta, who was a PhD candidate at MIT at the time, and joined D-Lab in the early years, first as a participant, and later as a trip leader, accompanying groups of passionate and curious MIT undergraduates in their journeys of discovery and reflection into rural Central America and East Africa. 

Fast forward to the summer of 2008, when my dreams of becoming the CTO of a promising online-ads startup were crushed by the subprime mortgage crisis. I happened to meet Amy again, this time under the shade of a tree on campus (nothing bucolic, it was a tiny patch of grass in a parking lot) when she essentially asked me one question: “Do you want to work at D-Lab?” and I said “Yes”—the shortest, most successful job interview ever. I became D-Lab’s first full-time employee. I had no orientation, no signing bonus, not even an office; but it was all good. I started contributing from day one: teaching, ideating, and tinkering.

Amy and I played as a team, in which I progressively took over the teaching—D-Lab: Design and parts of D-Lab: Development—and program management and she spent an increasing amount of time in the field, working alongside people living in poverty in remote communities abroad. As a result, she developed the Creative Capacity Building methodology in collaboration with back-then graduate student Kofi Taha, currently D-Lab’s Associate Director.

We dreamt big along the way, wrote grants and successfully raised millions of dollars to first launch D-Lab Scale-Ups, and later the International Development Innovation Initiative (IDIN) and the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) in collaboration with others. During my tenure, D-Lab moved from a shipping and receiving room, to a condemned building, to the fantastic suite of classrooms, offices, and workshops that it occupies today above the MIT Museum. And we, as an organization, grew from a staff of two to the 26 people we are today including teaching staff, researchers, program managers, administrative personnel and more.

All this growth inevitably leads to the question of D-Lab’s impact in the world. One of the very few of its kind when we started, D-Lab has been a pioneering program at the nexus of experiential learning and poverty alleviation in higher education. Today, similar offerings abound nationally and internationally, and there is a growing impetus for measuring and understanding their impact. This is essential within the broader context of international development to identify success stories among the high number of failed interventions and wasted resources with the lives of others in the balance (people living in poverty take high risks in spending their meager income on any promising solution).

As I reflect on the impossibility of quantifying life-changing experiences, inspirational lectures, friendships, hopes and dreams, the effect of which lasts throughout your life, long after you graduate, I have come to realize that measuring this kind of impact is no small task. From listening and talking to those that have gone through the program, as students, staff, partners and collaborators I do know that D-Lab has left a profound mark on all their lives. And it also has changed mine.

An electrical engineer by training, with mechanically-inclined genes, and a computer geek at heart, I felt at home at D-Lab and MIT at large. I embraced the hands-on culture of experiential learning that we preach and practice, and benefitted over and over from one of the best job perks that D-Lab has to offer: a fabrication workshop. I designed, I learned, I tinkered, and prototyped and built to improve my family’s life—the most notable outcome of my tinkering being a cargo bike themed after the children’s book ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar.’

Despite being an engineer, there is one thing, possibly one of the most important things, that I do not engineer: my career. I seize the opportunity when I see it, and when I can. Before coming to MIT, not even in the wildest of my dreams had I thought of working here. I had been rejected twice when I applied at MIT for graduate school, yet later I ended up teaching here. I don’t know where I will be in 10 years, but I leave now to start an investment fund in social enterprises that is a continuation of some of D-Lab’s work.

Long life to D-Lab!

D-Lab students among IDEAS Global Challenge Winners!


Members of the Bamboo Bicyles Beijing team.

Tunde Alawaode & Sam Bhattacharyya of dot Learn.

Members of the SmartSocket team working with a patient.






D-Lab congratulates all winners of the 2016 MIT IDEAS Global Challenge! Among this year’s 12 winning teams, announced on Saturday, April 2, were five projects with D-Lab roots or connections. 

dot Learn (Tunde Alawaode & Sam Bhattacharyya, former Dev Ventures & D-Lab: Ed independend studies students - $5,000)

Bamboo Bicycles Beijing (David Wang, current student/independent studies student with D-Lab: Design: $5,000)

SmartSocket (Katelyn Sweeney, Erica Green, & Krithika Swaminathan, D-Lab: Prosthetics fall 2015 - $7,500)

PrepHub Nepal (Hugh Magee, current student in Susan Murcott D-Lab: WASH + Env - $7,500)

And Astraeus Technologies won the $10,000 Practical Impact Alliance Mobile Phones & Behavior Change Award!

Read more on all the terrific winners of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge on MIT News!

D-Lab Spring Student Showcase & Open House 2016 - Friday, May 6, 4 pm

Friday, May 6, 4:00-6:00 pm - D-Lab, MIT N51 3rd floor

Students from D-Lab: DesignD-Lab: EarthD-Lab: Education and LearningD-Lab: EnergyD-Lab: Dissemination WASH-Env, D-Lab: Water and Climate Change, and Innovation in Relief, Recovery, and Rebuilding presented projects. In addition, several UROPs and graduate student researchers presented the work they have done this semester through D-Lab. To kick things off, instructors gave brief presentations. Attendees were then able to view all the working prototypes on display throughout the D-Lab space! 

Courses & Projects

D-Lab: Design addresses problems faced by underserved communities with a focus on design, experimentation, and prototyping processes. (Instructor: Matt McCambridge)

  • HANDCYCLE STEERING, Christina Eilar, Jahnavi Kalpathy, Siobhan Rigby, Michael Larson — UCPRUK (Wheels for Humanity), Yogyakarta, Indonesia
  • BAMBOO HANDCYCLE, David Wang, Abhineet Malhotra — Bamboo Bicycles Beijing, Beijing, China
  • RESILIENT T-SHIRT PRINTING, Serena Pan, Karla Zapata Garcia, Megan Thai, Thalia Estrella, Stephen Gardner — Banytayan Island, Philippines
  • SANITARY PAD DISPOSAL, Saad Amer, Monica Hersher, Tate DeWeese, Melissa Gianello — Saathi Pads, Ahmedabad, India
  • SOLAR HOT WATER HEATER, Jimmie Harris, Madeline Haas, Grace Li, Emily Tsang, Sally Beiruti — Shamsina, Cairo, Egypt
  • MOTORCYCLE AMBULANCE, Emily Young, Brittany Bautista, Sade Nabahe, Ali Abdalla, Niki Mossafer Rahmati — The Olive Branch for Children, Mswisiwi, Tanzania

D-Lab: Energy offers a hands-on, project-based approach that engages students in understanding and addressing the applications of alternative energy technology in developing countries where compact, robust, low-cost systems for generating power are required. (Instructors: Libby Hsu & Amit Gandhi)

  • HAND-POWERED WASHING MACHINE, Melanie Abrams, Alan Diaz-Romero, Serena Pan, Joseph Schuman —ASAPROSAR, El Sauce, El Salvador
  • LOWERING THE EMISSIONS OF CLEAN-BURNING COOKSTOVES, Julia Heyman, Juan Jaramillo, Will Kaufhold, Hayley Sypniewski— AEST, Soroti, Uganda
  • SOLAR STERILIZATION OF BANANA FIBERS, Andrea Blankenship, Ayomide Fatunde, Akwasi Owusu-Akyaw— Johnson & Johnson, Burro Brands, Accra, Ghana
  • OFF-GRID BEE POLLEN DRYER, Titan Hartono, Scott McDonald, Alexandria Miskho— Productos Apicolas de Colombia, Bogota, Colombia

D-Lab: Dissemination WASH-Env focuses on disseminating Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) or water/environment innovations in developing countries and underserved communities worldwide. (Instructor: Susan Murcott)

  • STEEP SLOPE, Holly Josephs — Plus D Studio & Parque Sitie, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • PREPHUB-NEPAL, Hugh Magee — Lumanti Support Group for Shelter, Kathmandu, Nepal
  • JUST-4-WATER, Mark Membreno — AVODEC, Jinotega, Nicaragua
  • THE BODHI COLLECTIVE, Soumya Pasumarthy —Pratham, Big Red Tent, D-Lab, Media Lab, Mumbai and other cities, India

D-Lab: Earth is a hands-on, multi-disciplinary exploration of the dynamic nexus between global biodiversity and human well-being. (Instructors: Eric Reynolds & Ariel Phillips)

  • BEES FOR BETTER COMMUNITIES, Amelie Kharey, Kali Rosendo — Boston, Massachusetts
  • rECOLAB, Catherine Yunis, Estefania Lamas-Hernandez — Koh Yao School, Ban Samkha School, Darunsikkhalai School of Innovative Learning, Bangkok, Koh Yao, Ban Samkha, Thailand
  • CHICKEN MANURE PELLETIZATION, Scott McDonald, Bjarni Örn Kristinsson — Zasaka, Chipata, Zambia

D-Lab: Education & Learning explores learning in the international development context and how innovative approaches and researched best practices can overcome challenges such as limited resources, language barriers, large class sizes, and entrenched pedagogy. (Instructors: Jessica Huang & Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar)

  • DESIGN FOR SCALE: CURRICULUM FOR A PROGRAM WITH INTERNALLY DISPLACED YOUTH, Verónica Salazar, Lisa Archibald, Florencia Gay and Gilda Colin — C-Innova, Bogotá, Colombia
  • CURRICULUM TO ENABLE REFUGEE YOUTH TO MAKE THEIR OWN LIGHTING SOURCES, Ava Zhang, Jean Yoon, Barbara Lima and Kelly Liu  — Tet Center, Adjumani & Pader Districts, Uganda

D-Lab: Water Climate Change By 2025, more than half of the countries in the world could be experiencing water stress or scarcity. Water stress and scarcity are exacerbated by climate change. This D-Lab class is about real-world answers to climate change as it relates to water. (Instructor: Susan Murcott)

  • WATER CONTAMINATION IN FLINT, Claire Alexandra — Bueno, Flint, Michigan
  • WATER, SANITATION, HYGIENE, Karla Mendoza — Cochabamba, Bolivia
  • FOOD AND CLIMATE CHANGE (Part 1), Sade Nabahe — Global
  • FOOD AND CLIMATE CHANGE (Part 2), Pamela Bellavita — Global
  • BLUE CARBON, SEA LEVEL RISE, Julie Simpson — Global

Innovation in Relief, Recovery, and Rebuilding explores the role innovation can and does play in how humanitarian aid is provided, and how it can change people, products, and processes. (Instructors: Amy Smith & Martha Thompson)

  • GREY WATER REUSE IN ZATAARI CAMP, Sera Tolgay, Sophia Wu, Valeria Vidal Alvarado — Jordan
  • BAG GARDENS, Raj Vatsa, Pranay Nadella — Lebanon
  • POST-EARTHQUAKE AGRICULTURE, Zainab Younus, Christina Eilar — Nepal
  • BUILDING COMMUNITY CAPACITY TO DESIGN LIGHTING SOURCES, Jessica Huang, Shwetha Shivarama, Nisha Dalvie — Ayilo refugee settlement, Uganda
  • MOVING FORWARD POST WAR, Florencia Gay, Francis Goyes — Colombia

Biomass Fuels and Cookstoves Group (Lead Research Scientist: Dan Sweeney)

  • CASE HARDENING INTERNAL COMPONENTS ON BRIQUETTING MACHINES, Lindsey Wang — AEST, Soroti , Uganda & Central Engineering Source of Technology, Kampala, Uganda

Mobile Technology Group (Lead Research Scientist: Rich Fletcher)

  • CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE DIAGNOSTICS, Niccolo Pignatelli — Mt. Sinai Hospital, NYC & Nagpur, India
  • PULMONARY DISEASE DIAGNOSTICS, Dan Chamberlain — Chest Research Foundation, Pune/Mumbai, India


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