Promoting Social Change through Inclusive Research

A unique partnership between MIT’s Summer Research Program (MSRP) and the Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR) is working to address disparities and promote racial equity. MSRP has been preparing underrepresented students for doctoral education since 1986 by connecting them with MIT labs and research groups. In recent years, ICSR, led by MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), has joined forces with MSRP to empower students to use big data and computational tools to make a meaningful impact on racial equity.

“ICSR has allowed us to directly engage with undergraduate students from both MIT and other universities,” says Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor of the Social Sciences and associate director of IDSS. “We have found that this line of research attracts students who are interested in using rigorous methods to address these issues.”

The collaboration aligns with IDSS’s multidisciplinary approach to societal issues, which involves incorporating statistics, computation, modeling, social science methodologies, human behavior, and an understanding of complex systems. With the involvement of faculty and researchers from all five schools at MIT and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, ICSR focuses on various aspects of systemic racism, including policing, housing, health care, and social media.

Passion for social justice meets impact

Mia Hines, a senior from Grinnell, has always aspired to use computer science to advance social justice. She has experience working with unhoused individuals, labor unions, and advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights. When applying to college, she wrote about using technology to assist Syrian refugees.

“As a Black woman, it’s very important to me that we focus on these areas, especially on how we can use technology to help marginalized communities,” says Hines. “And also, how do we stop technology or improve technology that is already hurting marginalized communities?”

Through MSRP, Hines was paired with Ufuoma Ovienmhada, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. Ovienmhada, a member of Professor Danielle Wood’s Space Enabled research group at MIT’s Media Lab, received funding from an ICSR Seed Grant and NASA’s Applied Sciences Program to support her research on measuring environmental injustice and socioeconomic disparities in prison landscapes.

“I had been using satellite remote sensing for environmental challenges and sustainability, with a focus on coastal ecosystems when I learned about the issue of ‘prison ecology,’” explains Ovienmhada. “This refers to the connection between mass incarceration and environmental justice.”

Ovienmhada’s research utilizes satellite remote sensing and environmental data to assess exposures to various environmental hazards, such as air pollution, extreme heat, and flooding. “This allows others to utilize these datasets for real-time advocacy and public awareness,” she says.

Hines specifically focused on monitoring temperature fluctuations using satellite remote sensing to evaluate the risks faced by prisoners, including death, especially in states like Texas where 75 percent of prisons either lack full air conditioning or have none at all.

“Before this project, I had little to no experience with geospatial data. As a budding data scientist, working with different types of data and resources was immensely helpful,” says Hines. “I was also able to take advantage of IDSS’s Data Science and Machine Learning online course, thanks to the funding and flexibility provided to me. It was a great opportunity to learn more.”

Filling the gap

Megan Li, a senior from Harvey Mudd, was similarly drawn to the MSRP projects supported by IDSS. Li aims to apply computational methods to societal issues and make computer science more inclusive, considerate, and ethical in her own work.

Working with Aurora Zhang, a graduate student in IDSS’s Social and Engineering Systems PhD program, Li utilized county-level data on income and housing prices to quantify and visualize variations in affordability based on income alone across the United States. She expanded the analysis to include assets and debt to identify common barriers to homeownership.

“I spent my time examining census data and writing Python scripts to work with it,” says Li. “I also directly contacted the Census Bureau to learn more about their data collection process and discussed questions related to their previous studies and working papers that I had reviewed.”

Beyond the research itself, Li gained valuable insights from conversations with fellow researchers, particularly changing her perspective on whether mortgage lending algorithms would benefit or harm homebuyers during the approval process. “I now have a bit more confidence, which is a positive outcome,” she says.

“At Harvey Mudd, only undergraduate students are enrolled, and my specific research interests are not well represented. This opportunity was significant in allowing me to determine if this research area is truly something I want to pursue long term and gain further insight into what I would be doing in graduate school through conversations with students and faculty members,” explains Li.

Closing the loop

Participating in MSRP provided invaluable research experience for Hines, while the ICSR projects allowed her to engage with topics she is passionate about and work towards tangible societal change.

“The experience felt more concrete because we were working on sophisticated projects in a supportive environment where people were excited to collaborate with us,” she says.

For Li, a significant benefit was the opportunity to align her research with her own interests. “I had the chance to propose my own research idea, rather than simply assisting with a graduate student’s ongoing work,” she explains.

Ovienmhada believes that the combination of MSRP and ICSR solidifies efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion advocacy, creating an environment and opportunities that are aligned with individuals’ values. 

“I have been involved in various diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and one recurring theme is the importance of not only bringing people in but also providing an environment and the support needed for individuals to work on what matters to them,” says Ovienmhada. “Programs like MSRP and ICSR offer those opportunities by providing mentorship and financial support.”