Sophia Chen emphasizes the importance of building a better world through empathy, patience, and respect

Sophia Chen, a fifth-year senior dual major in mechanical engineering and art and design, first encountered MIT D-Lab while attending an open house event as a middle school student in Florida. Her family journeyed from Clearwater to Tampa to explore opportunities at MIT. It was at this event that she discovered the innovative moringa seed press developed by D-Lab students Kwami Williams ’12 and Emily Cunningham. Subsequently, they co-founded MoringaConnect, aiming to boost the incomes of Ghanaian farmers. Over the span of 12 years, the company has significantly enhanced farmer incomes, sometimes by tenfold or more, through the sales of moringa products to wholesalers and the creation of their line of skincare, hair care, and nutritional items.

Reflecting on her early exposure to the work of D-Lab, Sophia recalled feeling deeply inspired. “I remember getting chills,” she shared. “I was so in awe. MIT had always been my dream college growing up, but hearing this particular story truly cemented that dream. I even talked about D-Lab during my admissions interview. Once I came to MIT, I knew I had to take a D-Lab class — and now, at the end of my five years, I’ve taken four.”

While completing four D-Lab courses during her undergraduate tenure may set Sophia apart, it is not an uncommon feat. Out of nearly 4,000 enrollments in D-Lab courses over the past 22 years, up to 20% participated in two or more classes, with many opting for three or more by graduation. For Sophia, these classes served as a continuum that affirmed and broadened her aspirations in global healthcare.

Emphasizing the Importance of Community Partnerships

Sophia’s inaugural D-Lab course was 2.722J / EC.720 (D-Lab: Design). Like all D-Lab offerings, D-Lab: Design revolves around projects and highlights the insights and input of each project’s community collaborator. Her team collaborated with Safe Water Harvesters in Uganda on creating a solar-powered atmospheric water harvester employing desiccants. They concentrated on early-stage research and testing for desiccant technology through vapor absorption trials. Safe Water Harvesters guided the project’s scope and objectives, collaborating with the students remotely throughout the semester.

The pivotal role of Safe Water Harvesters in the project’s success was evident. “At D-Lab, I learned the significance of recognizing that solutions in global development must stem from the perspectives and necessities of those being served by the intervention,” Sophia remarked. “We were taught to inquire about the availability of materials and manufacturing processes and consider how the technology would be sustained by the community.”

Exploring the Nexus of Water Access and Gender Disparities

Selecting to engage in the water harvesting initiative in Uganda was a deliberate choice for Sophia. During the previous summer, she interned with a startup focused on combating the spread of cholera in developing regions by designing a rapid detection technique sampling from local water sources. Subsequently, she joined Professor Amos Winter’s Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab as an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program participant, contributing to a household point-of-use desalination device in India.

Enrolling in EC.715 (D-Lab: Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) was a natural progression for Sophia. “This course was transformative,” she acknowledged. “While I was already passionate about ensuring clean water access and global resource equity, I soon grasped the multifaceted nature of WASH, not merely as a poverty issue but also as a gender issue.” Sophia joined a project led by a Nepalese classmate addressing the social stigmas around menstruation among Nepalese schoolgirls.

“This course and project made me realize the intricate connection between water insecurity and gender disparities, particularly gender-based violence,” noted Sophia. This connection manifests in various ways, such as the impact of inadequate sanitation facilities in schools leading girls to miss classes or drop out during menstruation. In areas where water is scarce, women and girls trek long distances to collect water for daily consumption, cooking, and hygiene, exposing them to assault and pressures for transactional engagements at water sources.

“It became evident that women bear a disproportionate burden of water insecurity, and water is pivotal to understanding women’s empowerment,” Sophia emphasized. “I sought to further explore the intersection of development and gender!”

Hence, in fall 2023, Sophia enrolled in both 11.025/EC.701 (D-Lab: Development) and WGS.277/EC.718 (D-Lab: Gender and Development). In D-Lab: Development, her team collaborated with Tatirano, an NGO in Madagascar, to design a vapor-condensing chamber for a water desalination system, culminating in a prototype tested and refined in Madagascar at the semester’s end.

Engaging with Real-World Challenges through D-Lab Fieldwork

“Fieldwork with D-Lab is a profoundly enlightening experience that benefits anyone,” Sophia asserted. “It’s easy to be ensconced in the MIT tech realm, but there’s a vast world out there with people leading lives vastly different from many of us, from whom we can learn more than from our problem sets.”

For Sophia’s D-Lab: Gender and Development course, she collaborated with the Society Empowerment Project in Kenya, eventually traveling there during MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January. In Kenya, she and her team conducted a workshop with adolescent parents to identify preconception risk factors and postpartum challenges, aiming to devise social solutions.

“Through my experiences in Kenya and Madagascar,” Sophia reflected, “the importance of crafting community-driven solutions steered and sustained by community members became apparent. Solutions necessitate community involvement, leadership, and trust, as they are the linchpin for enduring, high-impact, sustainable change. One of my D-Lab trip mentors stated that solutions cannot be imported. I hope all engineers comprehend the gravity of this assertion. It is our responsibility as engineers and scientists to enhance the world while embodying values of empathy, patience, and respect.”

Pursuing Passion and Purpose at the Crossroads of Medicine, Technology, and Policy

Upon graduating in June, Sophia will embark on a journey to South Africa through MISTI Africa to contribute to a clinical trial and community outreach initiatives. Subsequently, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in global health and apply to medical school, aspiring to work in global health at the nexus of medicine, technology, and policy.

“It would be an understatement to say that D-Lab has played a central role in illuminating my passions and guiding my life’s purpose,” she expressed. “I aim to dedicate my career to addressing global health inequities and gender disparities.”

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