Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sloan PhD Personal Statement

Your task in writing this statement is to convince the MIT Sloan School's PhD Program that your plans are cogent, your motivation strong, and that your background and personal qualities promise excellent doctoral work. Your statement is to be no longer than three pages (50 lines per page).

You may organize the statement as you like, provided it is reasonably concise. Include whatever information you think relevant. Below are some examples of the kinds of specific questions you may wish to address.

Plans: What are your short-term and long-term goals? Why is a PhD necessary to achieve them? Are there specific reasons why you want to enter the MIT Sloan PhD Program instead of some other program?

Interests: In what major field do you now plan to work? What sort of research topic or topics excite you intellectually? Be as specific as you can.

Background: How did you come to decide on your long-term objectives? How have your activities to date advanced you towards these objectives? Are there any aspects of your past record to which the MIT Sloan PhD Program ought to give special attention?

I’m an engineer interested in policy issues. Rather than continue to pursue a career in electrical engineering, I’ve decided I want to work on policymaking using analytical methods. Instead of troubleshooting circuits, I want to troubleshoot social and economic systems. I’m particularly interested in environmentally sustainable business and clean energy. I helped organize the 2009 MIT Sustainability Summit and through the conference I was introduced to system dynamics as a way of approaching complex problems such as climate change. I want to combine my interests in social issues, math, and engineering by becoming a systems engineer, designing technology policy about energy usage and generation using mathematical modeling.

I like to think of problems as complex integrated systems and I am interested in ideas that foster a holistic world view. Solutions need to be designed with a better understanding of the whole system to ensure long term effectiveness and minimize adverse unintended consequences. My main interest is in building an environmentally sustainable economy and way of life. In addition to sustainability, I’m also interested in US-China relations and American domestic policy on education, health care, and taxes. For all of these issues, we need good long term strategies that guide more detailed projects that are more specific in scope.

I like the idea of integrated solutions for environmental sustainability. At the BreakThrough Institute, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus advocate a paradigm shift for environmentalists. They argue that widespread motivation for environmentalism is only possible if environmentalists’ goals are aligned with improving standard of living. The Triple Bottom Line for “social, economic, and environmental” progress is usually evoked to convince companies that they need to be environmentally and socially responsible in addition to profitable in order for lasting benefits to be realized by local communities. The BreakThrough Institute is instead persuading fellow environmentalists to make sure there are social and economic benefits when proposing solutions for the environment. Otherwise, solutions will not work, and environmentalism will be politically marginalized. I believe well-defined high level goals are critical to sustainability, and solutions will require cooperation across disciplines to achieve common goals.

Through working on the 2009 MIT Sustainability Summit, I learned about system dynamics and people using quantitative modeling methods to work on policy and technology. These methods seem perfectly suited for exploring my questions about sustainability and the economy. I have been following developments in sustainable business and technology. Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins recommend new business models for a sustainable world in Natural Capitalism. However, I felt that most descriptions of sustainable business cannot explain how resource use can level off given a growing population and the need for businesses and economies to “grow.” Even if people buy things that are made more sustainably, any given business would still do better if more products are consumed. I was very excited to read World Dynamics by Jay Forrester because the World model addresses this contradiction and argues that technology increasing resource productivity may only delay depletion of resources, pollution, and crowding if capital investment is still exponential. As an electrical engineer, thinking about systems in terms of feedback loops comes naturally to me, and I’m enthusiastic about being able to understand how large systems work.

The challenges facing the nation and the world today, such as the recession, national security, and high health care costs, need to be met without depleting the very resources required to maintain a high standard of living. I want to analyze long term effects of technology and policy, especially for issues that have a regional, national, or even global scope. I’m interested in the MIT Sloan PhD program because of the ready access to educational resources and access to the best thinkers in every field. I’m primarily interested in system dynamics modeling, which was invented at MIT, and MIT Sloan is still the leader in the field. As a trained electrical engineer, I’m interested in analytically rigorous methodology so the close proximity to the most advanced math and controls classes at the engineering school is another advantage. There are also many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Finally, I have thrived at MIT as an undergraduate because of its unique culture and style, and I know I will be able to do even better as a graduate student.

As a PhD student, I want to learn to use tools like system dynamics and agent based modeling effectively. I have been taking the System Dynamics Self Study online course created by Professor Jay Forrester and provided by MIT Open Courseware. The biggest advantages of system dynamics are that simple rules can model a very complex system, effects of exponential rates of change are better represented, and delays in the system can be accounted for. I’m interested in using these tools to research how we can establish a clean energy economy. I’d like to know what technologies need to be developed, what is the government’s role in developing technology, what regulations or other programs need to be put in place, and what kind of business models can bring about a sustainable way of life.

There are many resources available at MIT Sloan for the research I am interested in. Prof John Sterman has demonstrated the importance of including interactions with the economy when modeling the energy sector. Models contribute to a better understanding of the energy-climate-economy system to inform high level policy decisions such as carbon pricing. Many attribute the success of reducing air pollution in the United States to cap and trade programs for pollutants. While there have been significant technological advances in pollution control and prevention, much of the national reduction in pollution might have been a result of moving heavy industry overseas so there has not been a net global reduction in air emissions. Many environmentalists are now wavering in their support for cap and trade for carbon emissions, and implementing incentives for reducing emissions is definitely an exciting area of research right now.

Another area of research that I’m particularly interested in especially because of my experience in industry is how energy efficient appliances can reduce emissions. Technological advances in energy efficiency has potential for making a large impact, but energy consumption will only be reduced if the total number of appliances does not increase. According to World2, gains from energy efficient devices themselves may simply be offset by using an increased number of appliances and the carbon footprint of producing more products. At the same time, production and consumer spending is needed for economic growth. Evaluating new technology using system dynamics can revolutionize policymaking and help governments as well as the private sector invest in the most promising projects.

I intend to continue research after my studies, and I hope to move beyond understanding the system to designing policy and modeling solutions for the system. I hope to be involved in implementation of policies and programs I can vouch for. Meanwhile, I’m interested in developing tools for widespread use in industry as well as the research community. I also look forward to mentoring others on using system dynamics to solve problems through teaching and putting together talks. I’m drawn towards MIT Sloan’s commitment to research, and I look forward to participating in conferences and collaborating with other great thinkers, particularly in the system dynamics community.

My family emigrated from mainland China to the United States when I was four, and growing up at the intersection of two cultures has helped me recognize that any given set of values exists within the context of one’s global perspective and historical narrative. That is why I like thinking about high level long term goals for society and whether actions are in line with those goals. At the same time, I have an understanding of different perspectives and the need to utilize the strengths of different value sets in solutions. I personally value being a useful and helpful member of society, making the system work better and participating in the community. Because of my strong analytical skills, I pursued a career in electrical engineering, and I now have substantial research experience through undergraduate research programs and industry. At the same time, I’ve organized many community events, continued to read about policy, and worked for various tutoring programs for low-income students and women. I have done well at each project and job because in addition to being technically skilled, I take initiative, and I persevere.

I took a year off from school after my junior year to work at various electrical engineering firms to explore the field. During this time, I considered wider impacts of my career and how to combine my broader interests in policy and social issues with engineering. I started a blog of ideas to practice communicating my thoughts and ambitions, which was really important to my personal development. I decided I wanted to develop technology for efficient resource use so when I went back to school, I studied power electronics and worked on wireless sensor networks at my UROP. Since graduating, I have been working at a power electronics company, Synqor, a leader in efficient power converters and inverters.

At Synqor I have shown I work well as a part of a team, and that I am thorough. One of the responsibilities of my team is to troubleshoot and fix units that have failed at the automatic testing stations. I have become very rigorous at collecting proof so that I can communicate my findings to others especially senior design engineers. I have taken a leadership role in making sure someone brings problems to the attention of the appropriate teams, and I sometimes act as a spokesperson for my team. One product line I brought to release earlier this year is now being used in a fuel cell drone by the Naval Research Lab, which recently completed a 23 hour flight.

When I worked in industry, I found that goals of funders and customers really influence research and technology development. Working at so many different places gives me insight into the industry. It has made me more interested in policy to identify research and technology needed for a sustainable world since I am no longer sure that the most needed technology gets the funding needed to get developed. I want to combine the skills I have acquired from engineering with my interest in policy to hopefully guide resources to the most promising and needed projects.

Besides engineering, I’ve always been interested in policy issues such as education. I tutored low income high school students at City on a Hill School and the MATCH School summer program. The summer program was for incoming freshmen who needed to be brought up to baseline math and reading levels. The theory is that the success of these students is most contingent on one-on-one attention and high expectations for them to live up to. The student I worked with scored a 54% on the math diagnostic at the beginning of the program, and at the end of the five week program she scored 94% on the same test. I worked for the MIT Women's Technology Program as a resident tutor. The program is for high school girls interested in math and science to come to MIT and take a few classes taught and tutored by female MIT students. WTP provides a safe environment for girls to practice taking risks without feeling intimidated by male colleagues. I’m also interested in education that can better prepare students to think critically, and I’m intrigued by the idea of using system dynamics for learning.

As an undergraduate, I organized many lecture events as a member of the Lecture Series Committee. I put together a lecture event in February 2008 called The Big Picture Panel on Sustainable Energy, which featured four MIT professors from different fields to talk about how their work is related to sustainability and climate change. I wanted to convince fellow students that they did not have to give up career aspirations to work on sustainability or environmentalism. In fact, they could have an edge since many businesses and governments are interested in sustainability. As a recent graduate, I was a lead organizer for the first student-run conference on sustainability, the MIT Sustainability Summit in April 2009. The conference was attended by over 250 people including students, faculty, business people, people working in the public sector, and alumni. I took a leadership role in developing the content, literature, and publicity for the summit. The Summit and the Big Picture Panel were exciting because I felt that I helped advance the discourse to talking about integrated solutions. Sustainability has become more relevant to the MIT community.

I am a problem-solver at heart, and I want solutions to address the root cause rather than simply mitigate the symptoms, which can be expensive and may cause other symptoms. Because of my extensive experience with electronics companies, I am particularly interested in clean energy and new energy efficient technology. I have been part of almost every stage of innovation and product development, and I have worked at companies at different stages of growth. When designing electronic circuits, it’s important to have a good model to simulate the design on the computer. I want to apply this concept to policymaking and work in research to model the economy-climate-energy system. MIT Sloan would be the perfect place for me to do that. Armed with a good model and modeling tools, I can help take policy-making to the next level and hopefully bring about sustainable living within my lifetime.

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