Water, essential to the survival of all living things, is scarce in many developing nations. Lack of water for drinking, bathing, and farming effects the quality of life, health, and productivity. With this in mind, Kevin Simon and his teammates at the Tata Center are working on addressing these issues in India this week—Simon’s sixth trip in the past year and a half.

Kevin Simon, Tata Center, water irrigation, India

Kevin Simon (left) and Katherine Taylor (right) install a solar-powered pump system in Southern Jharkhand, India.

Simon, an Engineering Systems Division graduate student, is developing irrigation technology to meet the needs of agriculture in India. Water shortages, caused by inconsistent access to fresh water and no solar pumps for small farmers with shallow groundwater, result in underdeveloped crops and inefficient farming practices. Simon has co-invented low-cost, solar-powered pumps that enable farmers to access shallow water for irrigation. This innovation has the potential to give approximately 20 million farmers access to water without the need for deep wells and expensive diesel generators.

“Witnessing this sort of resource-constrained environment has driven me to focus on figuring out how to help these people most effectively,” says Simon.

During his last trip, Simon deployed two of the pumps in Southern Jharkhand, India, along with fellow graduate student Katherine Taylor and mechanical engineering senior Marcos Esparza. The farmers have been successfully operating the system and are already seeing results. “India and other developing countries are facing huge challenges and how they address those challenges will have a lot of say in the future of our planet,” says Simon. “It’s important for us to be engaged with these countries and working in partnership with them.”

This project was recently recognized, along with other campus-wide initiatives, as part of the MIT Innovation Initiative, an Institute-wide effort that encourages the Institute’s innovative ecosystem, which was launched in 2013 by President L. Rafael Reif.

Tata Center, water irrigation, india

Local farmers examine the pump

“The Tata Center is a great example of rigorous MIT research being pushed in new directions,” says Simon. “There’s a cross-pollination of ideas with our partners in India that helps us grow as students, engineers, and entrepreneurs. We get pushed out of our comfort zone and sometimes the things we believe are challenged. The MIT Innovation Initiative shows that we, as an Institute, are not complacent. We’re asking new questions and looking for new ways to approach old problems.”

Other Innovation Initiatives include a proposed innovation and entrepreneurship undergraduate minor, a semester for innovative “passion projects,” and a Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy.


Guest blogger: Maggy Bruzelius, MITAA

View the Antarctica: Journey in Pictures by scrolling on the right. Do not click on the Menu button. 

A few weeks ago, during Antarctica’s summer, I joined the MIT Alumni Travel Program and a group of 38 MIT alumni and guests for a two-week expedition to the last great wilderness on Earth, Antarctica. I was impressed with the whole program—gliding around enormous tabular icebergs by Zodiac, walking along beaches covered with thousands of penguins, and kayaking among whales and sea birds. You can see a dynamic collection of photos from the trip Antarctica: Journey in Pictures.

Lectures by MIT Professor Susan Solomon, who spoke about the early Antarctic explorers’ experiences, were a particular highlight. After our return, I asked her for an environmental perspective since she is the leading atmospheric chemist who discovered the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.

Why do you think past environmental problems have something to teach us about climate change?

First and foremost, it’s a source of inspiration. There are a slew of environmental problems where we’ve been remarkably successful at making progress in the past—just to name a few, managing the challenges of ozone depletion, smog, acid rain, and lead in gasoline were each once thought to be impossible but people found ways to protect the environment and ourselves, usually at lower costs than originally feared. It’s important for people to remember that, and for younger people who didn’t live through the controversies over these things, to realize that such problems can be managed, if not solved. Younger people are usually very surprised to realize this, and it’s important to look at where we have been in the past to see where we might be able to get in the future.

Each of these past cases has something different to teach us about ways that things can happen—through factors including consumer engagement, technological advances, great science, smart policies, and combinations of all of these. Once we have thought deeply about the things that were done to advance progress on other environmental issues, I think it helps us understand the climate change challenge better and paths forward. Climate change is the toughest environmental issue people have ever faced in my opinion, but I also believe we will make more and more progress at dealing with it.

What do you hope to accomplish as the founding director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative?

I think the way we make the most progress on environmental issues almost always involves working across disciplinary lines. MIT has so much to offer—we have fantastic researchers spanning engineering, the physical and social sciences, management, and humanities, and I think it’s clear that we could contribute even more to environmental progress if we worked together more effectively.

The key goal of the environmental solutions initiative research is to foster that kind of interaction. We also have some exciting educational goals—we’d like to strengthen learning at MIT around environment and sustainability, and one thing we’re looking at is the development of a minor as well as targeted courses.

How can alumni help?

Alumni are a great source of ideas as well as support. We would love to hear from them.

To learn more, visit the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative and use the contact page for responses. Check out the MITAA Antarctica: Journey in Pictures photo gallery from the trip. 


Leslie Blythe SM ‘84 woke early on the morning of August 7. It was 29 degrees Fahrenheit and a light snow was falling.

Blythe was camping at 14,200 ft. near the Salkantay Pass, a merciless mile passing between two 21,000-ft. glacier-capped mountains. “It was a sleepless night,” Blythe said. “But it was beautiful.” 20140807_071022b

While most Americans were spending their vacation days in August finding the perfect span of beachfront on which to unwind, Blythe and 15 MIT alumni and guests were trekking 35 miles on the Salkantay trail. Waking after that first morning in the pass, the group still had 30 miles to go.

The MIT Alumni Travel Program offers forty excursions with fellow alumni each year. The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, which includes glacier hikes, ancient Incan sites, and three-mile high elevations, is not for the faint of heart.

“Every one of us hurts in some way,” joked Gail Leichtman, wife of Steve Leichtman SM ’86, after four days on the trail. “That hike was certainly the most challenging part of the trip. No one could have done it more slowly than I did.” Leichtman added, proudly: “But I did it. Every step was my own.”

At trail’s end, the reward was rich: the lush Sacred Valley and incomparable ruins of Machu Picchu. Although the group arrived at the site to throngs of high-season tourists, their capable guides led them to less-traveled spots for views of the valley and ruins.

“The last hour of the day, when everyone had left the ruins, was so serene,” said Barbara Lee ’87. “It was completely free of people and we were able to sit and absorb it.”

In Cusco, during the first few days of the trip, the group spent time acclimatizing to the altitude, drinking lot of coca tea and doing day hikes at important Incan sites like Tipon, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and Sacsayhuamán.

Though the trekking was purely physical at times, the group, which came from Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, Stockholm, and Northern California, enjoyed rigorous intellectual discussions.

“As an engineer, you think about this little city of Machu Picchu, with no written or oral records,” said Ted Goetz ’77, “and you start back-engineering it to figure out why everything is placed where it is. There’s lots of room for error, but it’s amazing how they figured it all out.”

Slide background The MIT Alumni Travel Program group at Machu Picchu, August 2014.
Slide background At Q’elloqasa Pass on the way to Machu Picchu.
Slide background Camping in the Salkantay Pass.
Slide background Camping in the Salkantay Pass.
Slide background Camping in the Salkantay Pass.
Slide background Ancahuasi, with Salkantay looming.
Slide background At the Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco.
Slide background Pre-Inca ruins at Pikillacta.
Slide background Along the Inca Trail at Tipon.
Slide background First view of the Sacred Valley.
Slide background The Salkantay Pass, at 15,200 ft.
Slide background At the summit of Huayna Picchu.
Slide background At the summit of Huayna Picchu.
Slide background At Machu Picchu.
Slide background Along the Salkantay trek.
Slide background View from the Inca Trail over Tipon.
Slide background Hiking at the ruins of Pisac.
Slide background Guided tour at Machu Picchu.
Slide background Feeding llamas.
Slide background Along the Salkantay trek.
Slide background Inside the Qurikancha temple, Cusco.


Sean Padgett MBA ’98 reflected on Peruvian economics. “It’s pretty staggering how big a country this is and yet how immature its economy is,” he said. “We were in Cusco, the second largest city, and you could see how many buildings lay unfinished.”

Padgett’s 12 year-old son Colin, who accompanied his family on the trip, said he learned as much about Incan culture as he did about Peru today. “After the first time I saw those big rocks at [Coricancha], I realized what a powerful empire this was,” he said.

As natives to the region, both guides took part in the critical discussions about their homeland. “In the past, Peruvians weren’t proud about having Inca roots, but that’s changed,” said lead guide Santiago Castelo. “Tourism is a good thing that has helped us see for ourselves what Incas did. In the past, we said ‘Incas did that.’ Now we say, ‘Our people did that. In our veins runs Inca blood, and we are proud.’”

Read more about the MIT Alumni Travel Program. 


All photos courtesy of MIT GECD.

A camel selfie from Petra, Jordan (Felipe Lozano-Landinez ’16, MISTI Israel). All photos courtesy of MIT GECD.

According to MIT’s Global Education Career Development (GECD) office, nearly 40 percent of MIT undergraduate students spend part of their undergraduate years studying or research abroad in programs like MISTI, IAP, D-Lab, UROP, and the Institute’s Public Service Center.

Because of these programs, MIT students are making global connections much earlier that previous generations. But how are these students learning abroad, and how are they connecting with the world?


MIT Aeronautic and Astronautic Engineering undergrads can participate in an exchange program with South Africa’s University of Pretoria near Johannesburg (Joshua Acosta ’16).

To help answer these questions, GECD has launched a campus-wide photography contest that seeks to map the Institute’s growing list of global experiences.

The contest, which began earlier this summer and runs through Sept. 2, is seeking pictures taken around the world by MIT students, faculty, and staff. The response has been tremendous, and GECD has received images from students and faculty in locations including China, Dubai, Jordan, South Africa, and Spain.

The winner will be announced at the Go Global Fair on Sept. 9. View a sample of the photos in this post then visit the GECD Tumblr page for the full list of submitted photos. Have a photo you’d like to add? Tell GECD your story!


Santorini Island, Greece (Nikolaos Vlavianos G).


MISTI program, Germany (Jiaming Zeng ‘16).


The Baths of Lady María de Padilla in the royal palace of Seville, IAP-Madrid (Caroline Walsh ‘17).


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Preparing matcha power for green tea Photo: Kyoto Wada

Preparing matcha power for green tea

Every Tuesday, MIT students sit on the floor of McCormick Hall and drink green tea.

For more than 10 years, Kyoko Wada has hosted weekly Japanese Chado tea ceremony classes for the MIT community. “I would like everyone to know about Japanese culture,” said Wada. “No experience required. Just bring a pair of white socks,” her website encourages.

A native of Japan, Wada began teaching the Japanese tea ceremony for MIT’s Women’s League when her husband Dr. Kazumi Wada joined MIT’s Electronic Materials Research Group (EMAT) in 1998. Based in Japan, Dr. Wada now leads EMAT-Japan at the University of Tokyo. In his frequent visits to the United States, he brings back green tea for his wife’s classes which now include lessons during MIT’s Independent Activities Period and an annual November Boston Tea Party for her students to perform their new skills.

The Japanese tea ceremony has ancient roots. Zen Buddhist Monk Eisai transported the first tea seeds to Japan from China more than 400 years ago. He is said to have introduced his fellow monks to tea’s eye-opening properties—much needed during long mediation practice.

“Chado—or the Way of Tea—simply means to heat water, put in tea and drink it,” once said Sen Rikyū, a 16th century Zen monk who formalized the tea ceremony from its more rustic beginnings. Women only became active in the tea ceremony after World War II when fewer men were alive to administer the ceremony. “The tradition had to be maintained,” explained Wada.

While the premise of Chado may be simple, the modern tea ceremony is meticulous in its details and symbolism, and it typically lasts four hours. At this year’s Boston Tea Party, Wada and her students decorated a traditional Japanese tea room with a border of fall flowers. Participants knelt on bamboo mats, and a banner decorated the wall with Chado’s guiding principles: harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

Cranberry dumplings at Boston Tea Party

Cranberry dumplings at Boston Tea Party

Students dressed in monochromatic kimonos passed out pumpkin seeds and dumplings made with cranberry sauce, an unusual treat. “When you see these utensils and sweets you feel a sense of fall,” said Aki Wada, co-teacher with Wada.

One student apprentice used a bamboo server with floral carvings to drop green matcha powder from a small container adorned with maple leaves and cherry blossoms, and then added hot water from a bamboo server. Participants bowed, turned their ceramic bowls clockwise twice, and took the first sip of green matcha tea.

What not to talk about during the ceremony? Politics, money, and religion are considered taboo. Everything is designed to encourage guests to treasure the moment, or in Japanese Ichi-go ichi-e, literally “one time, one meeting.”

“I can’t afford to go to Japan right now, so I figured this was the next best thing,” said Trina Bryant, a writing professor at Eastern Nazerene College who attended one of Wada’s events.

Learn more about MIT’s tea ceremony lessons. 


travel_logo_red2Interested in learning about Chile’s amazing observatories? Curious about the engineering marvels of Northern Italy? These trips and more are available through the MIT Alumni Travel Program, which annually offers more than 40 unique trips to locations around the world. In the past year, more than 600 travelers took part in the MIT trips.

The trips, which are open to the greater MIT community, often feature MIT faculty or other expert scholars who add a learning component to each program. An excellent example of the program’s offerings is “Berlin: Historic Treasures and Modern Marvels,” a week-long program in Germany that took place earlier in summer 2013.

Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci Palace

Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci Palace

The trip, which explored the architectural, cultural, and historic side of Berlin, included trips to more than a dozen museums, historical locations, and architectural spectacles. Close to 15 MIT community members took part in the trip, which also included day tours of German cities Dresden and Potsdam.

“The excitement went beyond sight-seeing,” says traveler Robert Hsiung MArch ’62. “The best parts of the trip were the learning experience in architecture, art, and history from our knowledgeable tour guide—he was first class—and the sharing of individual interests among our MIT alumni group.”

Pergamon Altar, built during the second century B.C.

Pergamon Altar, built during the second century B.C.

The week-long history lesson touched on German-specific issues such as the transformation of East Berlin since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the restoration of Dresden after its bombing during World War II, and visits to the Jewish Museum and the German Historical Museum. The trip also explored a wider scope of European history, such as viewings of the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti, the Ishtar Gate, and the Pergamon Temple.

“My wife and I had enjoyed visits to Berlin’s historical museum treasures on two earlier trips,” James Kistler ’62, SM ’63 says. “But the Alumni Travel program provided a much more comprehensive understanding of the history of Berlin and Germany through the efforts of our tour guide, Stefan Albrecht. His superb commentary enhanced our understanding of the social, economic, and geopolitical elements that shaped Germany’s history.”

Travelers connected with the MIT Club of Germany and current MIT students for dinner in Berlin.

Travelers connected with the MIT Club of Germany and current MIT students for dinner in Berlin.

Visit the MIT Alumni Travel Program page to explore upcoming programs. The 2014 schedule has been announced and features a trek a geology-based excursion of the Mojave Desert, a centennial celebration of the Panama Canal, and two trips geared toward families: a sight-seeing tour of China and a trip to the Galapagos that includes seven days aboard the cruise ship National Geographic Islander.

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Virgin Galactic, the Mojave, California-based firm that aims to bring the world’s first commercial passengers to space, named Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84 as its first president this week.

Isakowitz assumes the leadership role in a dubious time for non-commercial space travel. NASA, where Isakowitz recently served as deputy associate administrator, has seen its appropriations cut this year to nearly the lowest in a decade.

Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.

Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84 poses with SpaceShipTwo. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.

At the same time, Virgin Galactic’s proverbial star has risen. Founded by Richard Branson in 2004, the firm announced its 600th passenger booking for its commercial program last month. Its inaugural flight may take off as early as December.

Rumored to be among those 600 passengers, who each booked a $250,000 seat on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo: actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and pop singers Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

“This is a transformational company and I am honored to take on this new role,” said Isakowitz. “As we chart an exciting course into the future of commercial space travel, I could not imagine a better team with which to do it.”

Isakowitz’s challenges as president will be formidable ones: leading the company through this critical first flight, negotiating rights to use the nation’s first spaceport, supporting NASA’s continuing mission, and growing its own researchers’ talents. Another challenge will be bringing that space-flight price tag down, one that certainly makes a summer vacation to Europe by contrast more appealing.

And of course, there’s safety.

“Our goal is to be the safest spaceflight vehicle in history,” Isakowitz said in a recent interview with Forbes, “but this does not equate to risk free because the safest ship is one that never leaves the harbour. We selected a vehicle that was safe by design and that has a very small number of critical systems, which supports safety through simplicity. Our system allows for a safe return for all involved even if there is an issue with the mission.”

Isakowitz joined Virgin Galactic in 2011 as its EVP and CFO. Before his work in space travel, Isakowitz served as CFO at the U.S. Department of Energy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and as a branch chief for the White House Office of Management and Budget. He began his career as an aerospace engineer and project manager at Lockheed Martin.


Claude von Roesgen ’79 needed a way to combine his love of Lake Winnipesaukee with his zeal for alternative energy and simple living. A lake cabin was too much work, and an RV lacked charm and guzzled gas.

Tiny house, solar boat before launch. Photo: Roger Amsden.

Readying for the launch. Photo: Roger Amsden.

This year, von Roesgen struck on the perfect solution: a tiny house. On a pontoon boat.

After constructing both house and boat this spring, von Roesgen held a christening and launch ceremony last week in Meadowbrook, NH.

The tiny house movement appealed to von Roesgen from the minute he learned of it. These “were structures that were built on trailers to avoid having to meet building codes that would otherwise force one to build a much larger house,” he says. “The fact they were on a trailer made them movable of course.”

To help him construct the house, von Roesgen recruited his neighbor, Bob Wallhagen SM ’66, who owns a construction company in Carlisle, MA. Once it was complete, Wallhagen maneuvered the house carefully onto the 28×14-ft. pontoon craft and anchored it into place using a giant forklift.

To power the house and the boat, the two alums installed solar panels capable of producing 2.4 kilowatts and storing it in a lithium-ion battery for up to five days. Von Roesgen will power a microwave oven, refrigerator, and a 4000-watt electric motor on the boat from the stored energy.

Though the motor might not produce waterski-capable speeds, Von Roesgen will use it for what he loves best: traversing New England waters. “I’ve always been interested in energy conservation as I grew up during the oil shocks of the seventies,” he says. “And compared to my pedal kayak, going 2-5 mph without effort will seem luxurious.”

From left, Claude von Roesgen '79, Carla Schwartz, and Bob Wallhagen SM '66 on board the houseboat. Photo: Roger Amsden.

From left, Claude von Roesgen ’79, Carla Schwartz, and Bob Wallhagen SM ’66 on board the houseboat. Photo: Roger Amsden.

Von Roesgen aims to live in the tiny-house-boat this summer and do the same on other northeastern lakes for many summers to come, moving it between waterways on a trailer. “I may try Moosehead Lake, Lake Champlain, Erie Canal, Lake George, Lake Saratoga,” he says.

Tiny houses have long been a favorite design challenge within the MIT community, from the MAS.863 course “How to Make (Almost) Anything” to the Center for Bits and Atoms’ Fab Lab house.


What if you could deliver power to villages after a tsunami or earthquake by shooting lasers from a drone? Or circulate small drones above a festival site so people could recharge their cell phone batteries from them?

View from the Top - Seattle panelists

Panelists react to a question from moderator John Castle, right.

Four MIT alumni posed these questions, and several others, to each other and to over 100 attendees at last week’s View from the Top event, held at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.

The June 13 panel brought together five alumni from different decades and disciplines for “Reinventing the World,” a conversation about their work with technology and its delivery around the world.

Asking those tough questions about lasers was Thomas Nugent SM ’99, founder of LaserMotive, who won a 2009 NASA competition to deliver power wirelessly to robotic vehicles. Margaret Orth SM ’93, PhD ’01, founder of International Fashion Machines, presented some of her work that integrated fashion and wearable technology. Cliff Schmidt ’93 displayed the Talking Book that he developed as founder and head of Literacy Bridge, which delivers basic educational technology to developing communities. Yun-Ling Wong ’04, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, addressed the challenges of mediating the demands of both developed and developing countries in finding solutions to global problems.

John Castle ’61, ScD ’64, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the University of Washington, moderated the discussion, organized by MIT’s Office of Alumni Education.

The Seattle event gave attendees, who ranged from veteran Puget Sound Club members to young alums to prospective students and friends, a lively discussion among four professionals who are passionate about what they do. It also offered attendees ample time for questions, whether during the cocktail hour beforehand, the panel itself, or the desert reception afterward.

Even the panelists took turns reflecting on each other’s work.

After hearing from Nugent and narrating her own journey through wearable computing  via an IMAX screen in the theater, Maggie Orth described her new ideas on technological minimalism. “I am from MIT, so I am not a Luddite,” she said. “It’s not necessarily less technology that I want, but smarter technology.”

After hearing about Schmidt’s Talking Book, which has improved health and agriculture benchmarks for illiterate populations in Ghana by as much as 100%, Ling Wong explained just how hard such a project is for ambitious non-profits in the United States who want to affect the world.

“All lives have equal value, and technology can help us get there, but how we actually save lives is much more complicated,” said Wong. “Technology [can’t work] without advocacy, without government support, and without understanding a culture…the problems we’re trying to solve are hard ones…and it takes many sorts of people to make this happen.”

Castle, who introduced each panelist, remarked how all four alumni have essentially sought to answer one question through their work: How can technology change people’s behavior?

“For them, it’s not just about the technology, it’s about all of the things technology does and how it affects people in one way or another. Technology influences people’s choices, but in some ways it can push them in directions they may not want to go.”


Did Jason Trigg ’10, MNG ’10, subject of last week’s Washington Post story about young graduates saving lives by working on Wall Street, discover altruism at MIT?

jason-trigg-bankers-photo-800x532_ Gretchen Ertl

Jason Trigg ’10, MNG ’10. Photo: Gretchen Ertl.

Was it somewhere in the depths of his master’s research on “coiled coils and their oligomerization states”?  Did an epiphany strike while he was knee-deep in formulas at a Putnam Mathematical Competition, where he consistently earned honors?

It’s a good guess that traveling with the MISTI-China program contributed to some of Trigg’s working knowledge of problems in the world and how best he might help.

The profile of Trigg’s nontraditional approach to saving the world has sent shockwaves through the non-profit sector this week, sparking zealous rebuttals from pundits and columnists and reinvigorating debates about Peter Singer’s moral philosophy, one Trigg cites as influential.

Anyone who has enrolled in a MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives) program will recognize Trigg’s dilemma, though. In countries across the world each year, from Mexico to Israel to China, MISTI interns apply their talents with code, conservation, or entrepreneurship to tackle global problems.

No wonder that, coming out of college, they want to continue to be effective. This year’s graduates, though, face a similar hurdle that Trigg faced three years ago: a down economy. The unemployment rate for Americans aged 20-24 in April was 13.1%.

Trigg took a job he was qualified for and that paid well. As for saving the world, he enables others to do that work, curating his beneficence through GiveWell and other do-good clearinghouses that he knows will make the most difference. In his case, it’s the Against Malaria Foundation, where each $3 net he buys protects an average of two people from contracting the deadly disease.

“A lot of people, they want to make a difference and end up in the Peace Corps and in the developing world without running water,” Trigg told the Washington Post, “and I can donate some of my time in the office and make more of a difference.”

GiveWell, incidentally, is powered by data from MIT’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which analyzes the effectiveness of programs in developing countries around the world.

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