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.”