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

The Politics of Invention, March 31: Amy Smith, Pagan Kennedy, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Sunday Silungwe

Who invents for whom? Who gets credit for inventing? What gets called an invention?
Thursday, March 31, 5:00 - 6:30 PM (Free), MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 


Sasha Costanza-Chock

Associate Professor, MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing

About Sasha: Sasha Costanza-Chock is a scholar and media maker who works in the interrelated areas of social movements and information and communication technologies; participatory technology design and community based participatory research; and the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights, including comunicación populár. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate. He is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. While living in Los Angeles, he worked on a variety of civic media projects with community-based organizations, including the award-winning VozMob.net platform. More information about Sasha's work can be found at schock.cc.

Statement: Designers, technologists, inventors, and institutions are increasingly turning to more inclusive design processes. This shift has great potential to organize innovation in more productive, useful, and democratic ways. Often, however, these practices, ultimately serve extractive ends: extensive domain knowledge and tacit understanding are distilled through the 'participatory design' process, then taken away from the people and communities who 'participated' to be transformed into a product or service that is sold back to the community (or to global markets), nearly always without compensation or even recognition. How can we shift the extractive dynamic of the increasingly popular – and well-meaning – participatory design process? What would Design Justice look like?

Pagan Kennedy

Author, Inventology

About Pagan: The former Innovation columnist for the New York Times Magazine, Pagan is author of eleven books. She has been an MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow and published articles in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Other awards include a Smithsonian fellowship, a Massachusetts Book Prize honor in nonfiction, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her most recent book, Inventology, was published this year. The book, featuring a chapter on MIT D-Lab's Amy Smith, takes the reader through the methods that visionaries use to imagine new technologies. Based on interviews with inventors, economists and psychologists—as well as evidence from studies—the book reveals the steps that produce discoveries.

Statement: In the 1960s, following the exposure of a fatally dangerous Chevy Corvair flaw, Ralph Nader noted, “The liberation of the engineering imagination for automotive safety cannot take place within the automobile industry.” Nader’s point was that the designers and executives at the car companies had begun to dwell inside their own parallel reality — one in which it was acceptable to kill the customer. What creates the kinds of toxic environments in which designers lose sight of health and safety? What do we do about it?


Sunday Silungwe

Co-Founder, Zasaka (Zambia), Member International Development Innovation Network

About Sunday: Sunday is co-founder of Zasaka, located in Chipata, Zambia. Zasaka introduces affordable, appropriate technologies to farmers to help them grow and market diverse, high-value crops. Previously, Sunday worked for Heifer International, and trained at the Institute for Biblical Community Development at John Brown University. He started an NGO called Integral Community Development (ICD), which uses technology as a tool for building community capacity and educating rural individuals. Sunday holds a degree in Developmental Studies from Zambia Catholic University, and is a proud alumnus of the International Development Design Summit (IDDS). Sunday's hobbies include laughing and cooking—mainly laughing.

Statement: Innovations are passed down through invention and commerce. A rubber tire makes its way into a community that had rubber trees forever. The community in their context doesn’t see or want a tire. So a more useful innovation happens. Tires become soles of shoes, door stops, and chairs. The combination of idea, initiative, and resources is necessary to innovate – even if the resources are minimal. People from outside the rural areas, the impoverished areas, are often shocked at the ideas and initiative possessed there. Introducing rubber as a resource fills a need, so does a hammer, so does a conversation on a new way of thinking. What is the most innovative way to inspire and jump start invention in bottom of the pyramid communities?

Amy Smith

Founder & Co-Director MIT D-Lab; Director, IDIN; Senior Lecturer, MIT Mechanical Engineering

About Amy: Amy served in the US Peace Corps in Botswana and has also done field work in Senegal, South Africa, Nepal, Haiti, Honduras, Uganda, Ghana and Zambia. In 2002, she founded MIT D-Lab, a program which focuses on the development, design, and dissemination of appropriate technologies for international development. She also founded the International Development Innovation Network, the Innovations in International Health program, and the International Development Design Summit. She was selected as a 2004 MacArthur Fellow, recognizing her work in this area and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010 for the work she is doing to promote local innovation and technology creation. This semester, she is teaching a new course, Innovation in Relief, Recovery, and Rebuilding.

Statement: With more and more university programs focusing on students developing products and services for people living in poverty, we must ask ourselves if in the process of empowering our students, are we disempowering the people they are designing for? The process of creating a solution is rich with benefits: a sense of pride and accomplishment, the joy of creation and an increased sense of agency. Are these benefits going to the right people? When we develop products and services for people living in poverty, are we disempowering the people we are designing for? When we develop products and services for people living in poverty, are we robbing the end-users of the sense of pride and accomplishment, the joy of creation, and the increased sense of agency benefiting that comes with inventing for one’s own needs?

D-Lab Spring UGC Fieldwork Grants of up to $3,500

MIT freshmen, sophomores, and juniors: Secure $2,375 - $3,500 for D-Lab-related fieldwork from the Underclassmen Giving Campaign!

D-Lab students building a composting toilet in El Salvador, IAP 2016.

Fernando Ruiz '16 - Uganda.

Chheangkea Ieng '17 - Peru.

Sydney Beasley '14 - Mexico.

MIT D-Lab Fieldwork Grants provide funding to send students abroad and continue work initiated at D-Lab to benefit communities in the developing world. These grants are intended for projects that began in a D-Lab class, independent study, UROP, research fellowship, or other D-Lab context. 

Eligibility: MIT freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who:

  • Are currently taking—or have taken—a D-Lab course.
  • Are currently doing a UROP at D-Lab or IDIN research fellowship or have in the past.
  • Are currently working on or have worked on a D-Lab project in any other capacity.

Note: You are not eligible if you have guaranteed travel funding through a class.


MIT D-Lab Fieldwork Grants

MIT D-Lab Fieldwork Grants provide funding from the MIT Underclassmen Giving Campaign to send students abroad and continue work initiated at D-Lab to benefit communities in the developing world. These grants are intended for projects that began in a D-Lab class, independent study, UROP, research fellowship, or other D-Lab context. Spring 2016 grants are intended for projects and travel to take place over the summer of 2016.

The Underclassmen Giving Campaign

Since October 2006, MIT freshmen, sophomores, and juniors have been donating their time and money to support student grants (this year, D-Lab Fieldwork Grants) through the Underclassmen Giving Campaign (UGC). 

Each semester, volunteers gather in Lobby 10 for a one-week campaign, encouraging classmates to support their fellow students by helping fund their project ideas and turn them into reality.

Fundraising and Voting

Donating to the UGC is simple. Each fall and spring there is a campaign to raise money to support grants for the upcoming year in Lobby 10 from freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. Donating via the UGC website is also an option. Each underclassman who donates gets to vote for her/his favorite project! While all three D-Lab Fieldwork Grant nominees are guarenteed funding, additional Peer Impact Prize  awards of $1500, $750, or $325 will be awarded based on the number of votes received. Underclassmen can certainly donate as many times as they want during the campaign, each donor is allowed only one vote.

Finalist Responsibilities & Qualifications

UGC finalists will represent the UGC, D-Lab, and their project throughout the campaign period. If a team project is selected for funding, the team must designate one individual to represent the team. Finalists may promote their project using various marketing channels, such as, but not limited to: face-to-face communication, e-mail, text messaging and social media. Finalists may not endorse any project other than their own. The MIT Annual Fund will provide information on the finalist’s projects at Lobby 10 booth sessions, co-sponsored class council and UA events and online. Finalists are not responsible for soliciting gifts and should refer prospective donors to a UGC committee member.


  • Attend a 20-minute informational meeting to learn about the UGC 
  • Provide D-Lab staff with the requested project information 
  • Participate in a two-minute marketing video explaining the project’s focus
  • Attend the UGC’s kick-off candidate poster session in Lobby 10
  • Promote your project during the UGC campaign period. Promotional opportunities include: Lobby 10 booth sessions, co-sponsored class council or UA events, speaking opportunities at class or a student organization meeting, e-mail, text messaging, and social media channels
  • Publicize the UGC
  • Make your own gift during the campaign period
  • Provide a blog post and images to D-Lab and UGC at the end of the project


  • Strong communication skills
  • Belief in giving back to the MIT student community
  • Enthusiasm for MIT and D-Lab
  • The ability to make time for UGC activities

Spring 2016 Timeline

  • Applications due: March 2
  • Announcement of finalist selections: March 10
  • UGC informational meeting (required): Week of March 14
  • Finalist two-minute video recordings: Week of March 14
  • UGC kick-off candidate poster session:12-2 pm on April 11 in Lobby 10
  • Campaign and voting: April 11-15

Download the D-Lab UGC Fieldwork Grant application here!

Download an Overview, Process, and Timeline of the D-Lab UGC Fieldwork Grant program here!


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