Sunday, October 25, 2009

NSF Personal Statement

Engineering Policy All Day

My career aspirations have evolved over the years, influenced by my varied experiences at work, school, and leadership activities. Up until now, I have been pursuing an electrical engineering career while reading about and working on social issues on the side. Engineering classes and work have made me a good analytical and methodical thinker and first introduced me to systems thinking. I have also learned to be self-motivated and an independent thinker by studying socioeconomic issues such as foreign policy, environmental sustainability, education, and gender equality in and out of the classroom. To contribute to implementing ideas I particularly liked because I thought it would have a wide impact, I have tutored low income students and high school girls interested in engineering. Furthermore, I have organized events such as the 2009 Sustainability Summit at MIT. I have also learned to be an effective leader as well as a team player.

Through the conference, I was introduced to system dynamics as a way of approaching complex problems such as climate change. Finally, I feel that I have found a way I can merge my interest in socioeconomic issues, leadership and communication skills, strong math background, and engineering intuition. I want to be a systems engineer, designing technology policy about energy generation and usage using mathematical modeling.

I have always enjoyed quantitative reasoning applied to real systems. I studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate because of my first lab experience in the Introduction to Circuits class. We were building an audio amplifier. What once seemed like very complicated equations on a piece of paper sprang to life and I understood it intuitively once I could probe it in real time. However, the tangibility of the system was not important; it was that the math represented a real system. I found that I especially liked control theory when I took a class on Feedback and Control.

During my year off I learned more about other applications for electrical engineering and possible career paths. Since control theory is central to robotics, I took a year off from school after my junior year to work at a robotics company, Boston Dynamics. I also worked at Reaction Time LLC developing electronic training equipment and Tagsense developing RFID solutions for medical applications. At Reaction Time LLC, I worked with a businessman who had an idea and needed someone with technical expertise to make it happen.

While out of school, I had time to consider wider impacts of my career and how to combine my broader interests in policy and social issues with engineering. In my spare time, I read about climate change, foreign policy, food production policy, and other social issues. I started blogging about what I read, current events, and ideas to practice communicating my thoughts and ambitions. After returning to school, I became a much more focused student. I had decided I wanted to develop technology for efficient resource use. I wanted to focus on efficient energy generation and usage.

I started a research project (UROP) with the Smart Cities Group at the MIT Media Lab, working on making a wireless sensor network with sensors for plant water usage. This technology can make urban agriculture possible and also conventional agriculture less resource intensive. I took and did well in two power electronics courses, a lab and a graduate level class. After I graduated, I worked at Synqor, a power electronics company founded by Marty Schlecht who was faculty at MIT and coauthor of the textbook for the power electronics graduate class. At Synqor, I worked on troubleshooting existing products to improve the manufacturing process. I also characterized new products to finalize designs and make sure they are robust before they go onto the market. I learned technical skills but also to seek help when needed, coordinate with teammates, and coordinate with supervisors to make sure my efforts are in sync with the goals of the company. When we brought on a new team member, I took the initiative and provided some training for troubleshooting units. I made suggestions for improving the process such as separating units that someone has looked at before from other units.

Outside of work and school, I continued to think about social issues and policy questions. To support policies I liked, I worked for MATCH School, a charter school for low income students, as a tutor in the summer after my junior year. The student I worked with scored a 54% on the math diagnostic at the beginning of the program, and by the end of the program she scored 94%. For the summer after sophomore year and the summer after I graduated, I worked for the MIT Women's Technology Program as a resident tutor. Besides technical skills, women also need to develop a habit and a support structure for thinking ambitiously about projects they want to do. I really liked being a part of changing the education and gender equality paradigms, but ultimately, I decided I was more interested in and could contribute more to sustainability policy than education.

I wonder about what would really make the most impact in bringing about a transition to sustainable living. I felt that it can only be possible if the best and the brightest students such as those at MIT were working on projects related to sustainability rather than considering it a separate career path. I had been director of the lecture committee of the MIT Lecture Series Committee and put together many events including a lecture with the MythBusters, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, attended by over 1200 people. After organizing that event, I realized that I had an amazing platform for broadcasting ideas I wanted to promote.

My senior year in college, I put together a lecture event that was to be the kickoff event for the Focus on Climate Change Symposium. The Big Picture Panel on Sustainability would feature four professors at MIT from different fields to talk about how their work is related to sustainability and climate change. It was attended by over 250 people, and I felt it really made an impact. While I was the lead organizer, a couple of friends helped work on the logistics, the message, and the publicity. I then helped to organize the first student-run conference on sustainability, the MIT Sustainability Summit in April 2009. With the expertise I had gained through putting together other events, I took a leadership role in developing the content, literature, and publicity for the summit. It was a one day conference with three panels moderated by MIT faculty, three keynote speeches, and six smaller talks with leaders in industry, the public sector, and academia. It was truly a team effort with about twenty team-members. I made sure we had talking points so that sponsors, attendees, and speakers all got the same message no matter who they talked to. As a volunteer effort, it was also really important that people followed through on their tasks so I set up shared spreadsheets and documents for people in my group to work on and track progress. The conference was attended by over 250 people including students, faculty, business people, people working in the public sector, and alumni. It was very exciting and I learned a lot about persistence, persuasion, and working with different kinds of people.

Through working on this event, I learned about system dynamics and people using quantitative modeling methods to work on policy and technology. I immediately knew I wanted to be a systems engineer because this field utilizes all my strengths and combine my interests.

The challenges facing the nation and the world today need to be met without depleting the very resources required to maintain a high standard of living. I am broadly interested in challenges facing health care, education, and foreign policy, and I'm particularly interested in energy generation and use. I want to analyze long term effects of technology and policy. I want to eventually be a policy advisor on the regional or national level, most likely working in the public sector, but working in the private sector to develop new business models and products is also a possibility. First, I need to learn the techniques and analytical tools and also background information. Then, I want to work at a think tank or research group to make policy suggestions and then possibly become more involved in implementation. The NSF fellowship would help me gain the knowledge I need to make higher level strategic recommendations for policy and technology.

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