October 28, 2019

  • 4:43pm

    René Andrés García Franceschini grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico. His parents both work in science — his mother is a medical technologist, and his father is a chemist in Waco, Texas. He has two brothers, one older and one younger. When Hurricane Maria devastated the island last year, he had just started his junior year at MIT. He wasn’t able to reach his mother and siblings for about a week.

    “That kind of woke something in me,” he says. “I realized I need to try to ensure that the work that I’m doing, the technical work, is also aligned with trying to help people back home.”

    That’s when García Franceschini, a civil and environmental engineering major, reached out to the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center. Through their pilot program PKG Explore, he spent the 2018 Independent Activities Period traveling through southern Puerto Rico learning about the experience of residents, specifically those with small to medium-size businesses, and trying to understand how the supply chain of essential goods collapsed and what could be done to improve responses in the future. He interviewed more than 50 people, ranging from farmers to shopkeepers to managers at FEMA.

    In his conversations, the one bottleneck everyone kept bringing up was energy. He and a friend applied for and received a Davis Projects for Peace Fellowship to work on an energy-sharing solution for residential units that had installed solar arrays. That first project didn’t pan out because of legal complications, but García Franceschini knew he wanted to keep working on energy solutions. He eventually discovered Solstice, a company co-founded by MIT alumna Steph Speirs, which aims to expand solar energy access to all Americans.

    “I found their mission really fascinating,” says García Franceschini, who worked for Solstice last summer as a data analyst fellow.

    Developers in community solar projects tend to ask for a FICO credit score that is above a certain number. People with lower incomes often have lower scores, even if they’re able to pay, García Franceschini explains. Using machine-learning models, Solstice created a metric to be used in place of FICO credit scores — one that is more inclusive of people with low to moderate incomes. He continues to support the implementation of the metric and work on logistics through a series of pilot projects.

    “It was … a really cool way to combine a lot of very disparate interests that I had,” he says. The experience combined “the whole renewable energy aspect, with social equity and social entrepreneurship, with things that are specifically geared toward low- to moderate-income Americans.”

    Supporting fellow students with S3

    In the fall of his sophomore year, García Franceschini was dealing with depression. He decided to go on leave for the rest of the academic year.

    “I look back at it with a little bit of sadness,” he says. “It was the first time that I showed my parents around my school, and it was to pick me up.”

    When he came back to MIT, he joined the Returning Students Group, a community organized by Student Support Services, consisting of students coming back from leave. He says Student Support Services, or S3, played a crucial role in helping him transition back into student life.

    “Going on leave was a really important part of my MIT experience. It was also not a very pleasant one,” he says, about the difficulty of making the decision to leave campus and the process of moving back home. “They really helped me through that process. … Even now I really can’t thank them [S3] enough for, for everything that they did for me.”

    García Franceschini is now a leave/return mentor, meaning he advises students who are considering going on leave. This program evolved out of a 2015-2016 review of the withdrawal and readmission practices and ensures there is an extended network of support for students thinking about taking leave, on leave, or planning a return to MIT. S3 also holds a lunch for students coming back from leave every semester, and he has served as a panelist every semester since his own return.

    “I notice that every time I serve on this panel, it gets harder and harder for me to recall the exact experiences I went through,” he says. “And I think that shows that, although the transition is definitely difficult, after a while you’re no different than students that haven’t left.”

    On the CASE

    García Franceschini had come into MIT hoping to study physics, and later declared chemistry as his major. While on leave after his first year, teaching computer science back home at Puerto Rico, he had a change of heart.

    “I realized that, for me the actual human impact that I have is equally, if not more, important than the technical rigor of the work that I’m doing,” he says.

    When he returned to school, he changed his major to civil and environmental engineering. He also discovered a group called CASE, which stands for Class Awareness Support and Equality. It was a club designed to help people at MIT who were struggling financially, and to discuss issues related to socioeconomic class.

    “So, I was like … I want to be a part of this,” he says.

    He joined the club in 2016 as funding coordinator and became president the next year, a position that he still holds. Through CASE, he and the other members have hosted workshops on socioeconomic class and financial literacy, and have worked on projects to help people with challenges such as food insecurity, budgeting, and finding housing for their parents during commencement.

    García Franceschini is also a member of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, or GEL. The program involves taking classes about leadership and reinforcing those lessons at the end of each week by having students practice the skills they’ve learned.

    “It’s been really eye-opening, as a way of assessing myself and assessing what I’m good at, and assessing what I need to improve on,” he says. The GEL office has also become his favorite secret spot on campus. “No one’s ever there, and it’s really nice!” he says.

    His fraternity, Theta Delta Chi, has also been a significant part of his life at MIT. He joined during his first year at MIT and has been an officer every semester that he’s been in TDC. He’s matured a lot because of living at the house, he says, and it’s where he found many of his best friends. Since moving off campus, he’s also taken up biking — something he didn’t know how to do until this summer when he started working at Solstice.

    “I just realized, wow, I really missed out on a lot in those 21 years when I did not know how to bike,” he says.

    García Franceschini hasn’t made up his mind about what he wants to do after graduation. While he might remain at Solstice, he’s interested in graduate programs that apply data science and statistics toward social equity programs.

    “Even if I were applying the same techniques, I know I would not be happy just doing machine learning [alone],” he says. “I also know I wouldn’t be happy just doing policy work without the technical foundation; it has to be kind of a combination of both.”

  • 4:43pm

    “By 2030, there will be a 40 percent gap between water supply and demand. That means that for every five people in this room, only three will have water,” said Mary Conley Egger, the opening keynote speaker at the annual MIT Water Summit.

    Eggert, vice president of Global Water Works, emphasized those figures to underscore the urgency behind this year’s theme of “​Thirsty Cities,” addressing the severity of the crisis surrounding our water resources. Over 200 presenters and attendees gathered for two days to address the issues together.

    The sixth annual summit was hosted by the MIT Water Club and co-sponsored by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, J-WAFS research affiliate Xylem, Inc., as well as other external supporters. The high-profile conference is one of the student group’s signature initiatives. Featuring MIT and external experts, the summit brought together water sector professionals from industry, academia, government, and non-governmental organizations to share ideas and resources, and propose innovative solutions.

    Why cities?

    Approximately 50 percent of the current global population lives in cities. By 2050, that number is predicted to rise to 70 percent. Yet due to a combination of factors — including outdated infrastructure, inefficient water reuse methods, and a general lack of consumer consciousness about water conservation — water utilities are already struggling to meet existing consumer demand. What's more, global urbanization trends and corresponding increases in consumption associated with rising incomes are resulting in a growing demand for potable water. Water systems relying on energy-intensive technologies to meet this increased demand can be expensive and unsustainable.

    The impacts of global urbanization on water supply are being further exacerbated by climate change, and can already be seen in the growing list of cities and regions experiencing drought and water scarcity crises. The starkest example is Cape Town, South Africa, whose water supply crisis hit the news last year, and was the motivation behind the theme of this year’s summit. Cape Town officials announced their anticipated “Day Zero” (the day when their taps were predicted to run dry), making this city the first to potentially run out of water. Day Zero, originally estimated to occur in March of 2018, was extended following the success of stringent water consumption restrictions for the towns’ residents. Water levels in reservoirs have since recovered somewhat, but the city’s precarious situation exemplifies how the consequences of climate’s influence on water security are already being experienced.

    Add to that the example of California’s severe drought of recent years and related current wildfires, which were still raging when the summit convened, and the connection between water supply challenges and climate change are hard to ignore. 

    Yet, as keynote speaker Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, put it, “we as a society are not looking at the long term.” When it comes to water use and water infrastructure planning, she said, “we are making a lot of short-term decisions.”

    In another keynote talk, Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, agreed, noting that cities develop water systems with the assumption that the future is going to look like the past. This affects their resiliency, as improvements in water efficiency can affect the functioning of water and wastewater systems in the future. Presenters and attendees alike acknowledged that this approach can’t continue and that innovative solutions and responsive system planning are needed in order to construct resilient and sustainable systems.

    Panels explored every aspect of urban water systems, from diplomacy and management, to water markets, to tech and engineering strategies, in an effort to engage participants in the various aspects of the problem space and explore solutions. While conversations approached challenges from multidisciplinary fields and backgrounds, the same message grounded each and every solution: building a resilient urban water supply requires conversation, collaboration, and coordination.

    Addressing complexity through conversation

    “Even though water seems very straightforward, it’s wicked complex,” said Chi Ho Sham, vice president and chief scientist of the Eastern Research Group, who addressed the need for innovation in the water sector. Much of the research at MIT is driven by a strong belief in the benefits of technological solutions and innovations, however building resilient urban water systems requires more than that. Sham noted that policy changes, regulatory governance, implementation by municipalities, and consumer adoption are essential to ensure that tech advances in the water sector reach their potential. 

    Many speakers and moderators across the two-day Summit proposed to address this complexity with a seemingly simple solution: get people together. In the words of Kent Portney, professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, “all the voices need to be incorporated in this [water policy and governance] process” because every stakeholder has something unique and relevant to bring to the table. Governmental bodies, utility providers, policy makers, daily consumers, and researchers each have varied — and sometimes differing — interests, questions, and perspectives that any one individual may not be able to anticipate.

    Megan Plumlee, director of research and development for the Orange County Water District in California, remarked that connecting technology providers and academics with the utilities and their customers is the way to establish broad success in the water sector. She provided compelling examples where stakeholder engagement was essential to ensuring technology adoption, including a National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center called “Re-inventing the Nation’s urban Water Infrastructure” (ReNUWit). ReNUWit connects academics to industry partners to test new research and technology, so that, if successful, it can be put into practice more quickly and achieve greater uptake by consumers. This interdisciplinary approach allows industry stakeholders to interact with water sector researchers and to discuss new ideas and strategies, while simultaneously allowing water researchers to find out about real-world challenges facing the utilities.

    Other presenters emphasized stakeholder engagement as an essential step in policy creation, adoption, and planning. Lawrence Susskind, the Ford Professor of Environmental and Urban Planning at MIT, discussed one high-profile negotiation scenario involving cross-border water sharing along the Nile River. Government leaders have a natural instinct to take as much water as possible to provide for their people, however such actions can jeopardize water security for downstream populations — entire countries in the case of the Nile. His proposed solution? Talk. He said officials, technical experts, stakeholders and users need to collaborate in an informal and community-minded atmosphere, a strategy he has employed successfully through the mediation and conflict resolution services employed by his nonprofit The Consensus Building Institute, as well as in his MIT teaching. He noted that many government leaders can be afraid of looking weak, especially when appealing to other countries for help, but with matters as complex as water management across international borders, open collaboration is the only way to ensure success.

    Yet another collaboration strategy highlighted at the summit is to more effectively connect existing solutions with those who need them, by consolidating information and resources and bringing people together to learn about them. Lauren Nicole Core from the World Bank spoke of the bank’s work on “demystifying solutions that are already available” through the Water Scarce Cities Initiative. She emphasized the fact that many effective technologies and policies have already been developed for the water sector, and some water challenges can be solved merely by matching a strategy that already exists to a water challenge in a particular region or municipality. This initiative is currently connecting diverse utilities and stakeholders across the globe to solutions though in-person events and online resources that stimulate dialogue, knowledge flow, and collaboration.

    Water markets call for collaboration and coordination

    Who owns the water we use? How do we allocate it? How is it distributed? The answers to these questions vary all over the world, and in many cases the answers themselves cause problems and conflict. Meanwhile, demand grows and in many regions, water supplies are being depleting.

    In the face of urgent water scarcity issues, several experts at the summit discussed how economics can serve as a powerful tool to manage global water resources and ensure that they are more efficiently used. In a panel focused on water markets, they discussed the opportunities for and challenges of creating a formalized structure for water to be priced and traded. However, with so many stakeholders invested in water resources, coordination across many different users and regulators is essential to ensure that any market-based solution is just and equitable as well as effective. Carlos de la Torre, an advisor in fiscal transparency in Central America said he believes that to employ a system for water regulation and pricing, key stakeholders from a variety of sectors need to be brought together to co-define the problem, co-create alternatives, and co-select a joint action plan.

    Featured presenter James Workman, founder of AquaShares, also discussed water markets, water pricing, and water regulation with a particular emphasis on the importance of stakeholder coordination. He discussed the example of the Kalahari Bushmen of Southern Africa. This community thrives despite the water scarce desert environment in which they live. How do they do it?  Through a self-organized, self-regulated local autonomous water market that encourages resiliency through individual trading. According to Workman, this market “turned crisis into cooperation and scarcity into abundance.” Inspired by the equitable distribution system that he witnessed when traveling in Africa, James created AquaShares, an online water market that enables users to earn money by saving water, providing a reward system for living in a more water efficient way. The system combines pillars of motivation and information to coordinate conflict-free water share allocation across firms, farms, and families.

    Communication spurs action

    Peppered throughout the summit’s discussion of urban water sector challenges and solutions was an acknowledgement of “the human factor” — the ways in which culture, history, and habit influence human behavior and can limit the adoption of water efficiency strategies. Conversation, collaboration, and coordination seek to leverage the human factor in order to make positive and lasting change. Colin Kuehl, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, noted that while the data clearly demonstrate the urgent need for water conservation, when working with stakeholders, information is not enough. Through his research in social psychology he has identified a three-tiered communication strategy employing information, motivation, and behavioral skills that most effectively influences behavior change: inform consumers about a water issue or crisis; provide both values-based as well as social norms-based motivation; and provide concrete actions to encourage behavior change. 

    As Jonathan Baker, an associate with the Analysis Group stated, “what we [did] in the past certainly affects the problems we face right now.” Similarly, what happens now affects the future, and by leveraging the human factor by employing some of the strategies shared at the Summit, the current generation of innovators, researchers, and policy makers have important tools as they get to work shaping  a more water-secure future.

  • 4:43pm

    Eric Alm is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and biological engineering at MIT and co-director of the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics. He also serves on the board of directors for the non-profit stool bank, OpenBiome, and clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company Finch Therapeutics. His work focuses on understanding and engineering the human microbiome, which he defines as the microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses — that live on and inside the human body. The microbiome plays a key role in human health and disease, and Alm and his colleagues strive to translate basic science discoveries rapidly into clinical settings, where they can contribute to better outcomes for patients.

    Q. People are increasingly curious about the state of their microbiome. Could you tell us what a healthy microbiome looks like? Does the number of different types of bacteria species in the microbiome matter for health?

    A. We don’t really know if diversity matters. If you’re very unhealthy, diversity in the microbiome can be very low as a result of an infection — where one particular bacterium takes over the gut and diversity goes down because you’ve been colonized by an infectious agent. But more might not necessarily be better if you’re within the range of diversity that is common among healthy people. So a diet or treatment of the microbiome may lead to increased diversity, but that does not mean it’s better or healthier for you. Diversity is not synonymous with healthy, but we don't have anything else that is synonymous with healthy either. Eating plenty of fiber and maintaining a varied diet is probably the best we can do for now until we have better science and knowledge about what healthy means.

    Q. You cofounded the Global Microbiome Conservancy (GMbC) to identify and preserve gut bacteria from different peoples around the world. Could you tell us more about what you’re doing and why?

    A. The microbiome is very homogenous in populations from industrialized nations that have access to antibiotics, processed foods, and modern sanitation. We have an extensive collection of over 7,000 different microbes that you’d find in folks from North America. But when we looked at the microbial species in people living in less developed nations, we discovered we hadn’t even scratched the surface in terms of microbial diversity, especially among people living "traditional," non-industrialized lifestyles. Those populations have a much greater microbial diversity than we see in North Americans, as well as very different organisms that might have totally different effects on host metabolism. This could be really important for health — not only in developing countries but maybe also for ourselves.

    GMbC’s biobank now houses about 4,000 strains from non-industrialized communities in seven countries, and we’re actively sampling in many other locations. We’ve built a global network of about 70 scientists, anthropologists, and collaborators working with indigenous and other non-industrialized communities in about 35 countries. We get samples and bring them back to MIT where we isolate the bacteria and preserve it for future generations so this biodiversity is not lost. Right now the 7,000 strains that we derived from urban North American individuals includes only five previously unknown genera — but the 4,000 strains from the non-industrialized parts of Africa and the Arctic where we’ve sampled have already yielded 55 unknown genera.

    Q. You’ve also helped people gain access to a procedure that involves transplanting stool from a healthy donor into the colon of a patient. Could you tell us more about the use of fecal transplants?

    A. Clostridium difficile finection is the most common hospital acquired gut infection, and our interest in the disease came after reading a scientific paper that showed fecal transplants work were effective even in cases where standard antibiotic therapy had failed. Patients, however, could not get access to treatment at that time, because doctors didn’t have access to the material for fecal transplants. We knew how to do it in the lab, and in 2013, my graduate student Mark Smith started a non-profit stool bank called OpenBiome, and we treated our first patient later that year. We’ve treated about 40,000 people so far. We’re partnering with over 1,000 hospital networks across the U.S. to make sure everyone has safe access to this medical procedure.

    The FDA does not currently allow large-scale treatment for indications other than C. diff. but clinical studies into other applications in various diseases exist. At the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics at MIT, for instance, we’re involved in clinical studies that involve fecal transplants for patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. We look at various strains of bacteria and the immune response and even the metabolites in the blood to see how that changes in response to a fecal transplant. We’re also studying the effects of diet on the microbiome. For example, we know that microbes can metabolize fiber to short chain fatty acids like butyrate, which seems important in IBD. One of the interesting things we’ve found is that depending on the microbiome, different people require different fibers to make butyrate. Some individuals will take inulin and convert it into butyrate but not pectin and vice versa. We are working toward things like personalized fiber supplements for people with IBD.