Your brief introduction to me
Hello, dear reader! It’s very nice to e-meet you.
My name is Adi, I did my undergrad at MIT in electrical engineering, and will be continuing graduate school in the mechanical engineering department starting this fall. Hobby-wise, my best friends are my trusty pair of cameras (and assorted lenses). I’m a huge fan of non-sentient robots, and my favorite place to spend time on a weekend morning is the machine shop.
Your brief introduction to the blog post
This past summer I’ve been in Ghana working for Moving Health as both a mechanical engineer, and a cinematographer (wild combination — I know). This is the first of a three-part series I’m writing for MIT D-Lab, so stay tuned.
For this first post, my hope is to show you my journey through D-Lab and how I ended up working for this amazing nonprofit in Ghana this summer, one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I started out with dreams to change the world as we know it (as we all do)
I was first attracted to MIT by the “Campaign for a Better World.” Scientists, researchers, and engineers tackling climate change, food science, health, and education? It was one of the main reasons I chose to come here.
I hadn’t heard of D-Lab until a friend told me about it. Christopher Kiel, a good friend of mine from MIT’s Solar Car team, told me about a class he was taking called D-Lab: Design. He was working with a company in India trying to recapture soot from the environment, and turn it into ink for art — whhhaaaaaatttttt?
I vowed to take a D-Lab class some day, or at least that was the plan until MIT started hurling bricks in my direction. As I was dodging the flying debris, I lost track of that idea for a while.
I learned I was wrong (profoundly)
When COVID-19 sent us home and I realized I needed something to fill up my basement-based fall schedule with. I chose D-Lab: Development. Looking back on it (and in the best way possible) it was no where near what I expected.
You see, I think I had a very skewed image of what the field of development is and could be before taking my first D-Lab class. And I think it was largely based on how many large-scale nonprofit organizations define success and how the media treats the topic. I came in under the impression that the goal was to work with “locals” to identify problems, but that ultimately we as engineers would provide and implement solutions to help as many people as we could. And we’d focus on simplicity and affordability.
To say that the class opened my eyes to reality would be a gross understatement. Libby Hsu, the class instructor was quick to dispel the idea that we, as western engineers somehow know better because of our increased access to resources and (often) more formal education. She explained D-Lab’s philosophy that solutions are most effective with community buy-in and input and that in this class, we would focus on creating one solution, for a few people, and we’d focus on making it work.
What helped me fully grasp this concept was the project the class requires. Abigail Frey, Michelle Chung, Layal Barakat, and I were on a team with the members of Diversa (a community co-creation center in Bogota, Colombia) to help farmer Don Álvaro create a more efficient way to plant his Quinoa. Not only was Don Álvaro better at building things than I was, he was a brilliant designer. I learned even more from him than I dare say he did from us. The long zoom calls with whiteboard drawings truly conveyed what Libby meant when she told us that we work with the community to design solutions. It abolished the common misunderstanding that people in underserved communities are somehow helpless, and we are their knights in shining armor.
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the very real power dynamics at play here. Our opinions are often given much more weight than we may imagine, or more than they should be given our lack of context. But that is why it’s so important for us to understand, and to listen to the members of the communities we work with. Our goal is to build relationships and friendships to help communities build their hopes and dreams, not our own.
From “Development” to “Design-for-Scale” (and how I met Emily Young)
The next fall, I took Design for Scale, a product design for manufacturing class with a development focus. We learned about tolerance, solution robustness, materials sourcing in-country, and the benefits of locally produced products.
Our project that semester was to design a UV disinfection box for hospitals in South Africa with Dr. Cyan Brown (and Design for Scale class team members Diane Li, Carolina Warneryd, Robin Willis, Justin Jiang, Ben Graybill, and Dayme Delgado). After months of research on sheet metal processes, ray-tracing models to determine the location of LEDs, and design of a printed circuit board (PCB) to drive medical grade UVC LEDs, our team reached a conclusion I didn’t expect. The commercial products on the market, produced at scale, and imported were safer, more cost-effective, and have every single feature the users requested. So I learned that sometimes, it’s really about picking your battles.
The class instructors were Grace Connors and Emily Young. To describe many of the class’ concepts, Emily used her own company, Moving Health, as an example. Moving Health is a company that started in D-Lab: Design, had conducted years of user research, and was now scaling up to produce their gas-powered tricycle ambulances to implement them all over Ghana.
Because of the pandemic, I missed my chance to go abroad with my D-Lab: Development team, but I was determined to have that experience one day. Towards the end of the semester, I waited after class to ask Emily and Grace if D-Lab had opportunities for the summer of 2022. That’s when Emily told me that Moving Health offers internships, and that she’d love to have me on board for the summer.
And after losing my passport for three weeks, I got on a plane to Ghana…
With Emily’s help, I reached out to Ari at MIT’s MISTI program and the wonderful people at the PKG Center for Public Service. After completing some short applications, they agreed to fund my trip. I applied for a visa, and after spending three weeks convincing FedEx that my passport was in fact my passport, it was not a fake, and they should release it to me from their security services facility, I boarded United Airlines flight UA996 with service to Kotoka International Airport.
My experience in Ghana, to quote Anton Ego from Ratatouille, “rocked me to my core.” But you’ll hear about that next time.
Some ending advice on how to get a job
For anyone reading this who wishes to use engineering to build a better world and is having trouble starting, reach out. Reach out to me, to D-Lab, to an organization you wish to work for. You start by starting, and often that means asking for opportunities from the people doing the work you want to do.
I know, networking, “ew gross.” I thought that too at one point, and honestly still have a small aversion to the word. But I learned to think of it a little differently, to think of it more as meeting someone you respect, and asking for their advice, learning about their journey so you may forge your own path.
Libby Hsu, MIT D-Lab Associate Director of Academics