Student Sustainability Journeys: Alejandro Diaz

by Elizabeth Gribkoff

ESI launched the Minor in Environment & Sustainability in 2018, which means we now have the pleasure of seeing our first cohorts of graduates go out into the world. As they depart MIT, we’re interviewing them to understand what worked and didn’t work in their sustainability careers on campus.


Like many MIT electrical engineering students, Alejandro Diaz spent a lot of time as a kid playing with circuits and trying to make his own electronics. But he also grew up backpacking and camping with his family in the northern California mountains. This early love of the outdoors instilled in him an appreciation for the environment that has directed his path at MIT.

During his first year in college, Diaz took part in the MIT Outing Club’s “winter school,” which teaches students how to safely enjoy winter sports like cross-country skiing and mountaineering. Through MITOC, Diaz met fellow students who were passionate about sustainability and decided to enroll in 21W.775 Writing about Nature and Environmental Issues. “After taking a few more environment-related classes, I realized that probably where I want to end up career-wise is combining electrical engineering and computer science with sustainability,” says Diaz.

Alejandro DiazDiaz wasted no time testing that theory out. The summer after his freshman year, he took an internship in Brazil with renewable energy company Iberdola. He helped design a new wind farm and even delivered a 40-minute presentation to the head of the company on the state of Brazilian wind energy—putting to use the Portuguese classes he signed up for as soon as he came to MIT. “I got to learn a lot about the energy infrastructure in Brazil, and how it’s all an interconnected system,” he says.

Diaz has also worked as an undergraduate researcher in MIT’s D-Lab with Dr. Eric Verploegen, who designs off-the-grid refrigeration systems in shipping containers. The coolers contain solar-powered fans that force air over a series of wet pads, making the inside of the insulated shipping containers more humid and cooler, an energy-efficient way to preserve food where electricity is scarce. Dr. Verploegen says that while in the lab, Diaz “takes initiative to learn new skills” while bringing a “positive attitude towards problem solving.”

Throughout his time at MIT, Diaz has been drawn to classes and research opportunities that allow him to solve environmental challenges as part of a team. “I think always what it comes down to for me is the people and the relationships I’ve made,” he says. “Everyone has a drive to do a specific thing, and it’s really cool being able to share that and collaborate on different projects.”  For that reason, one of his favorite classes was EC.719 D-Lab: Water, Climate Change, and Health with Prof. Susan Murcott. Diaz and other students developed a climate clock that shows how much time remains until the “carbon budget,” the total amount of carbon dioxide we can emit to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, runs out.

Diaz, a rock climber, has also been involved with MIT’s Outing Club as a trip leader. His passion for climbing led him to take 12.001 Introduction to Geology, where the enthusiastic professors and field trips to local rock formations made it a memorable class. “MIT has such a wealth of classes that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know about,” says Diaz, whose love of Hispanic Literature inspired him to minor in Latin American and Latinx Studies. He suggests that students take classes outside of their major to see where their interests might lead them.

Diaz feels that MIT has an obligation to not just work on coming up with new technology to solve the climate crisis, but also to engage with policymakers to better implement solutions that already exist. “I think that’s where a major push has to be,” he says. Leading by example, he has worked on MIT’s next Climate Action Plan, sitting on the plan’s advisory committee as the representative for the Student Sustainability Coalition.

Now, Diaz is pursuing a Master’s in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science focused on artificial intelligence at MIT. After finishing his undergraduate degree a semester early, he felt he still had more to learn at MIT—and was especially reluctant to move on with all the job market uncertainty from the pandemic. While he has not yet chosen a lab to work in, Diaz plans to continue doing research that allows him to “combine electrical engineering…with working on an environmental problem.”

 

The Practical Challenges of Carbon Footprinting

What is the carbon footprint of the things we use every day? This is a question Suzanne Greene, leader of ESI’s Metals, Minerals & the Environment Program and manager of the MIT Sustainable Supply Chains Initiative, continues to ask. By looking at the carbon emissions companies report (or in some cases, don’t report), we can better understand entire industries’ and economies’ climate impacts, and set a “carbon budget” to reduce them.

Greene recently published two studies that dive deep into two sectors that make a big difference for our everyday life—mining and oil. Making up a lion’s share of industrial carbon emissions, both sectors are key to making society work, but also key to reaching the Paris Agreement climate goals. By looking at these “elemental” commodities, we can start at the base of global supply chains, understanding where and how emissions occur and targeting efforts to address them.

In “Responsible or reckless? A critical review of the environmental and climate assessments of mineral supply chains,” published in Environmental Research Letters, Greene and her co-authors look at the methods major mining companies use to calculate their annual carbon emissions. They found that reporting was often incomplete, and differences in methodologies employed by companies made a significant difference in the final numbers. These inconsistencies inhibit investors and consumers from being able to compare and contrast corporate emissions and progress towards climate goals.

In the second paper, “Well-to-tank carbon emissions from crude oil maritime transportation,” published in Transportation Research, Greene and her co-authors used information on more than 28,000 shipments of crude oil to understand the carbon emissions from the sea transport of oil. The results show that there are significant differences in the carbon footprint of oil transport depending on the oil’s origin and destination—underlining the point that all fuel has a carbon footprint above and beyond the emissions associated with burning it. Understanding these upstream emissions will become even more relevant as putatively low-carbon fuels like biofuel and hydrogen hit the market, for which most emissions lie upstream.

Greene continues to extend these research efforts as part of the Coalition on Materials Emissions Transparency (COMET), a multi-institutional effort to create a universal framework for direct comparison of greenhouse gas emissions in diverse industrial supply chains. Tracking global carbon emissions is a challenging prospect, but one society needs to master if we are to meet our 2050 climate goals. The advancement of consistent methodologies, application of satellite tracking, and setting of science-based targets are all pieces of the puzzle that we can work to advance.

 

The Curious Case of Engineering Schools and Sustainable Investing

The ESI Rapid Response Group is investigating climate-related financial disclosures, the fiduciary duties of institutional investors to incorporate climate change into the investment process, and what universities and their endowments should be doing in terms of both. Read the full story in Forbes.

Letter from the Director: “Trump’s Legacy – Lies and Violence,” January 2021

On the third day of the Trump administration Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President of the United States, introduced the concept of “alternative facts”. This early indicator of the depth of deception inspired by Donald Trump’s pathological lying was just the very beginning of odious behavior by the new President and his political appointees. On Wednesday, January 6, 2021 we witnessed the full manifestation of that concept as it drove a mob to storm the United States Capitol building and terrorize both houses of Congress.

That day, the single act that drove the seditious mob was Trump’s unequivocal call to action, “…you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.” This call was offered as the culmination of just over two full months of lies about the existence of evidence showing widespread voter fraud. These lies were widely and incessantly broadcast by the President of the United States and unsuccessfully flung at several dozen courts by an assortment of political hacks and legal clowns. Stop the steal was the corrosive mantra that set the stage.

Just two days before the Trump-inspired act of domestic terrorism, he debased the Medal of Freedom—our nation’s highest honor, alongside the Congressional Gold Medal—by awarding it to Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan, two of the most ideologically driven and conspiracy-friendly Republican members of Congress. Eighteen months earlier Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom to the discredited economist whose eponymous Laffer curve enthralled ideological opportunists of inequity. And let’s not forget that just three weeks ago, Trump pardoned former employees of Blackwater convicted of murder and manslaughter in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

Also during these past weeks, the administration has succeeded in moving forward to sell the first ever leases for oil and gas development in Alaska’s biodiverse and ecologically sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This unprecedented effort to expand oil production into one of the most important reserves of unique biodiversity in the world is just the latest environmental insult perpetrated by this corrupt and venal President and his henchmen. By the time Joe Biden is inaugurated as President and Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President, the Trump administration will have reversed more than 104 environmental rules—many on the basis of flimsy science, obfuscation of the facts, dismissal of public sentiment and comments and the rights and desires of marginalized communities including Native Americans.

In his 1981 inaugural address Ronald Reagan famously stated that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” In the most explicit terms since President Reagan voiced that thought, the Trump administration has finally proven him correct. It is important to tell the truth. Trump and his agents have lied to the American people and since January 2017 his administration has posed a grave threat to the nation’s security, health and wellbeing.

It is critically important not to mince words about what has been happening these past four years. It is important to remember and call out the damage the Trump administration and Donald Trump himself has inflicted on the United States.

It is time to heal, but we need to do more, much more than heal. It is time to act. The environment matters and it has been degraded these past four years—we must rebuild a thoughtful and science-based approach to protecting people and the environment. Black Lives Matter peaceful protestors at the Capitol would have been arrested in droves this past Wednesday; structural racism is real and must be addressed with real actions, today. Climate change has become an existential crisis and the US needs to recapture a leading role with solutions and commitments, including financial resources. We have run out of time to delay fully committing to and realizing a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

The most patriotic sentiment this past Wednesday was shame. I felt it deeply. The most patriotic instinct is to build—and build better, generously, equitably, thoughtfully and with the full promise of science and creativity. I also feel this deeply.

John E. Fernández, Director
January 8, 2021
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

Student Sustainability Journeys: Rebecca Grekin

by Elizabeth Gribkoff

ESI launched the Minor in Environment & Sustainability in 2018, which means we now have the pleasure of seeing our first cohorts of graduates go out into the world. As they depart MIT, we’ll be interviewing a few of them to understand what worked and didn’t work in their sustainability careers on campus.


Rebecca Grekin spent her summers growing up with relatives in Brazil, where she saw her grandmother collect aluminum cans and other recyclable items to raise money for charities. That sparked an interest in Grekin to find ways to reduce and reuse “what other people considered waste.” In particular, she wanted to research more sustainable alt­ernatives to plastics, which led her to study chemical engineering at MIT.

Starting her freshman year, Grekin pursued a UROP with Devin Currie, a postdoc in Dr. Gregory Stephanopolous’ metabolic engineering lab. She tested out different kinds of bacteria to help develop a “designer community” that could convert food waste into lactic acid – a building block of compostable plastics. That summer, Grekin went to Sao Paolo through MISTI, where she worked with researchers developing a diesel additive from green feedstocks like sugarcane, even co-authoring a paper.

Rebecca GrekinOne challenge Grekin faced at MIT was finding real-world chemical engineering opportunities at school career fairs that would allow her to work on sustainability issues. Even when companies have sustainability divisions, they don’t always highlight those kinds of positions at MIT career fair. So she ended up accepting an internship improving vehicle efficiency at ExxonMobil her sophomore year – a decision that was not easy for her to make. “I grappled with whether or not I was okay working for an oil company even if it was in the service of sustainability,” she says. Ultimately, Grekin decided working for ExxonMobil could help her learn more about the environmental challenges of fossil fuels. She returned her junior year to work on developing a life cycle analysis to help recycle vehicle lubricating oils – a position that allowed her to connect with a range of employees who were also passionate about sustainability.

While Grekin valued her internship experiences at ExxonMobil, she wished she’d had access to more support when deciding whether or not to work there. This led her to connect with ESI’s Education Program Manager Sarah Meyers during her senior year to create the MIT Action Sustainability Corps, or MITASC. MITASC unites sustainability-minded undergraduates and grad students and provides personal and professional development opportunities, such as trainings and grants. “Although the program is in its infancy, I’m excited to see what will happen with it in the future and am proud that I was able to help start something that I wish had existed when I arrived at MIT,” says Grekin.

Grekin also started Waste Watchers – an initiative that stations trained students at campus events to cut down on waste contamination. An audit found that staffing events with Waste Watchers slashed compost contamination from 72% to 10%. Grekin says she saw attendees become frustrated but also engaged when they learned, for instance, that black plastic couldn’t go into the recycling bin. “I think that it’s a really powerful way to kind of get the community at large thinking and caring about these types of things,” she says.  In 2019, Waste Watchers was one of two MIT groups to receive a Golden Beaver Award, given to organizations that run “outstanding” programs or have a significant positive impact on campus life.

While at MIT, Grekin sought out classes and extracurriculars that would allow her to combine her love of problem-solving with her passion for sustainability. One of her favorite classes was 11.S938 Solving for Carbon Neutrality at MIT. Students in that class examine MIT’s effort to slash emissions as a case study for the challenges, and solutions, facing leaders worldwide as they move toward a lower carbon future. Grekin appreciated that she got to work with fellow students across MIT’s different schools on “real world” challenges. “That class gave me a little bit of perspective as to why some of these things that I thought were super easy actually aren’t,” she says.

Today, Grekin is pursuing a one-of-a-kind Master’s in Energy Resources Engineering in the Benson Lab at Stanford University. She is also working with the university’s sustainability office to better calculate the emissions in goods that Stanford purchases, from dining hall food to office chairs, and to come up with a plan to reduce those emissions.

During her time at MIT, Grekin realized that she did not have to work for what is traditionally thought of as a green company to have an impact on environmental issues that she cares about.  “If you want to, there is a way to integrate sustainability into whatever you’re doing,” she says.

 

Environmental Solutions Initiative puts sustainability front and center at the MIT career fair

When MIT students walk into the Johnson Athletic Center for fall career fair — or this year, hop onto Zoom — they’re greeted with flashy displays from hundreds of employers vying for some of the top tech and engineering students in the world. Company reps eagerly tell them about salaries, office perks, and opportunities to contribute to cutting-edge work.

Now, thanks to a tool developed by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), students can also learn how environmentally responsible their prospective employers are.

Read the full article on MIT News.

Letter from the Director: “Post-election: getting on with our work,” November 2020

As of this writing, Donald Trump has not conceded defeat to Joe Biden, though the result is now clear.

As we look to the next few months and years, the passing of 2020 marks the beginning of the need for rapid annual and decadal global greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement will be a necessary but not sufficient next step. Significant increases in emission reduction commitments are needed right away and the international community has much work to do. Alongside this necessity will be the continued weaving together of action-oriented coalitions inclusive of industry and finance, cities and communities and many elements of civil society – including research universities – which have worked these past four years to maintain momentum toward a low-carbon future. Coalition building to meet the climate crisis will benefit greatly from leadership by the U.S. federal government, supported by a return to science-based decision-making and productively allied with our international partners.

The ESI wishes well all in government, especially at the EPA, DOE, NOAA, NASA, NSF and other government agencies, during the coming White House transition and in their efforts to make possible a just and robust transition to a future of low and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Welcome back to arguably the greatest challenge humanity faces.

John E. Fernández, Director
November 8, 2020
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

Student Sustainability Journeys: Tessa Weiss

by Elizabeth Gribkoff

ESI has the pleasure of working closely with many of MIT’s undergraduates who are most deeply involved in environmental research, activism, and real-world action. As they depart MIT, we’ll be interviewing a few of them to understand what worked and didn’t work in their sustainability careers on campus.


Tessa Weiss knew since high school that she wanted to combine her passion for sustainability with her aptitude for math and science – and going into clean energy seemed like a good way to do that. Although Weiss majored in mechanical engineering at MIT, she was also able to explore her passion for climate policy through courses and extracurriculars. This helped her discover that she wants a career where she can take a holistic approach to solving environmental problems.

Weiss, who hails from Phoenix, AZ, sought out courses that would allow her to gain hands-on experiences in the field of sustainability. She took part in MIT’s unique first-year program Terrascope, in which students work on solutions for a different global environmental challenge each year. In 12.000 Solving Complex Problems, Weiss and her cohort came up with ways to make cities more equitable and sustainable by 2050. And that spring, she built a small-scale wind turbine in another Terrascope class, EC.746 Design for Complex Environmental Issues.

“It really framed my whole experience at MIT in terms of thinking about the bigger impact that what we’re doing in class can have on the world,” says Weiss of the Terrascope program.

For her internships, she sought out opportunities to gain engineering experience at sustainability-focused companies. After her sophomore year, she was an energy efficiency intern at McKinstry and Company in Golden, Colorado. The summer before her senior year, Weiss interned at Oklo, a California-based nuclear reactor startup. But Weiss, finding herself drawn to “systems-level thinking,” has never been satisfied by pure mechanical engineering design work.

“Sometimes in engineering, you can get into these rabbit holes where you just think very intently about one part of the solution, whereas I always found myself drawn back to the bigger picture,” she says.

One of Weiss’ favorite classes was 11.003 Methods of Policy Analysis with Prof. Cherri Abbanat, which she took her senior year. “That class made me a lot more motivated to look at things from a policy perspective as well,” Weiss says. “That was a theme that came to fruition for me later on at MIT – we had a lot of these technical solutions, but what was holding us back was having the right policies to implement them.”

Weiss, a collegiate athlete, decided not to run cross country or track her last year at MIT, using her newfound free hours to “dive into climate and sustainability wholeheartedly” through extracurriculars. She ended up co-chairing the campaign to divest MIT’s endowment from fossil fuels. In that role, which Weiss sees as one her “defining experiences” at MIT, she was able to organize and lead fellow students.

“It was interesting getting to learn how a university like MIT makes decisions and what its priorities were, and how sustainability or climate fits into those priorities,” she says.

That spring, Weiss attended a conference with Net Impact, a networking organization for business leaders and students interested in effecting social and environmental change. At that conference, Weiss met Bill Weihl, the former Director of Sustainability for Facebook and now the founder and Executive Director of ClimateVoice, a non-profit that aims to channel the workforce as a tool for climate action. She started volunteering with ClimateVoice and now directs its efforts to recruit student leaders to pressure companies to support climate policy.

Weiss also did a UROP her senior year in urban metabolism, the study of the material and energy flows in cities, with the Environmental Solutions Initiative’s (ESI) new Cities and Climate Change program. She worked with ESI director John Fernández and other students on a project to improve the efficiency of resource flows in Bangkok and other Thai cities.

That experience and her earlier participation in Terrascope and at McKinstry sparked an interest in building sustainability – the field Weiss now hopes to work in. In the U.S., buildings account for 40% of energy use, and Weiss sees this as an area where energy efficiency work could have a major impact.

“I think also, at a personal level, there’s room in that sector for working at the intersection of engineering, policy and business development,” she adds. “There’s potential for my role to move in a direction that I would really enjoy in the future.”

 

 

Revamped MIT Climate Portal aims to inform and empower the public

Stepping up its ongoing efforts to inform and empower the public on the issue of climate change, MIT today announced a dramatic overhaul of the MIT Climate Portal, climate.mit.edu, which provides timely, science-based information about the causes and consequences of climate change — and what can be done to address it. Read the full story at MIT News.

Letter from the Director: “Vote as if _______ Depends on It – Because It Does,” September 2020

As Director of the ESI, I’ve used this space to write “notes” on a number of subjects. I now take this opportunity to join the growing chorus encouraging everyone to exercise an essential individual right of our democracy – the right to VOTE.

Let me state clearly that the ESI is nonpartisan and we work across the political spectrum in the US and internationally. Our cross-partisan activities are always focused on leveraging MIT’s capacity and talents in contributing to improving people’s lives, promoting sustainable and equitable prosperity and protecting the planet.

However, being nonpartisan does not mean we are apolitical. Politics matter. Engagement in the political process matters. The ESI currently works with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels for a low carbon and equitable future. For many Americans, voting is the most powerful and accessible way to engage in our political system. And while the individual act of voting seems almost trivial in a world of massively concentrated power and wealth, voting itself holds the promise to recast everything about the political reality we live in. Seems that we Americans have not appreciated this well enough. Consider that the largest party in America is neither the Democrats nor the Republicans – it’s the party of nonvoters[1].

So, while the ESI is nonpartisan, we are deeply engaged in the consequences of our evolving political landscape and are particularly attuned to how the dynamics of governance shapes our environmental present and future. These past few years have been a sobering reminder that some political agents believe that accelerating environmental and ecological destruction, inaction on climate change, perpetuation of entrenched environmental injustice, and short-term profits for the few over long term prosperity for many are acceptable results of our political system.

I do not. Our system was conceived and engineered to serve the Right of the People, though from its origins it was deeply flawed. In fact, history has taught us that our nation’s founding ideals were false when written[2] and eventually required that the US Constitution be amended in significant ways. This work to make a more perfect union is certainly not done, and not by a long shot. How we conduct ourselves toward the environment and act on climate change will hinge on how many of us decide to vote[3].

As the US Declaration of Independence states, “… when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

The abuses were those of George III. Today, abuses of our political system, assaults on our institutions, and the specter of despotism are 21st century American realities. Voting is one way to throw off such Government and provide new Guards for our future security.

So, please vote. Vote as if our democracy – and the environment, and justice, and sustained prosperity – depend on it because they most certainly do.

John E. Fernández, Director
September 24, 2020
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

Below we list several resources to assist you and others in exercising your right to vote:

 


[1] Attributed to and paraphrased from Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration.

[2] Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “The Idea of America – The 1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine [New York City], August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html   Accessed September 16, 2020.

[3] See the work of Nathaniel Stinnett and the Environmental Voter Project: https://www.environmentalvoter.org