This fall’s MIT Alumni Leadership Conference (ALC)—a two-day event during which over 600 dedicated alumni volunteers return to campus for networking, training, and updates on the Institute—opened with a keynote address by MIT D-Lab Faculty Research Director Dan Frey. The event proved a tremendous opportunity to update this group – many of whom graduated before or soon after D-Lab was started in 2002 – on D-Lab’s mission to work with people around the world to develop and advance collaborative approaches and practical solutions to global poverty challenges.
In his remarks, Frey described the lively atmosphere of walking into the D-Lab space in N51 where you might find students from any of the eight courses offered this semester “interacting with instructors and partners in one of our classrooms or in the D-Lab workshop learning new skills or building prototypes.” He went on to illustrate the way D-Lab’s three pillars – education, research, and innovation practice – feed each other in support of D-Lab’s mission: “D-Lab instructors relay new findings to students directly from their own investigations; students work around the world where D-Lab’s deep connections with NGOs and other community partners have created what we call the global classroom; and D-Lab researchers develop new projects that grow from authentic interactions in what we call the global laboratory.”
Following his talk, Frey introduced a video celebrating D-Lab’s 15th anniversary in 2017 and featuring D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith, other members of the staff, D-Lab students, and alumni. To wrap up the morning, he moderated a panel discussion with Sarah Tress ’19, inventor of the low-cost Loop wheelchair seat cushion who has taken three D-Lab classes so far; Samir Wadhwania ’18, who pursued multiple D-Lab projects in El Salvador as an undergraduate student; and Debbie Lin Teodorescu, founder of SurgiBox—a surgical theater in a backpack—who has been affiliated with D-Lab for seven years.
“I would have never pursued Loop if it were not for D-Lab classes in the first place,” said Tress. “The classes both informed me of the challenges wheelchair users face in the developing world and taught me how I could make an impact by designing technologies for and with the people facing those challenges.”
“D-Lab has long been the heart of SurgiBox,” Teodorescu remarked following the panel. “It’s kind of tough to found a startup out of your garage in Cambridge, since nobody can actually afford their own garage around here; so it was a welcome relief as SurgiBox was starting out [in 2011] to find D-Lab where we were told, ‘Treat this like your garage—do things, make things!’” Last month, SurgiBox was awarded $75,000 by MassChallenge and named a finalist in for the Humanitarian Grand Challenge.
D-Lab’s participation in the ALC was organized by Development Officer Nicolene Hengen. Tress described taking part in the event this way: “Getting a chance to speak about what I love doing most at MIT and share the work that myself and others have been doing through D-Lab with MIT alumni was an incredible way to connect with the alumni community.”
—Nancy Adams, D-Lab