Inclusive research for social change
The MIT Student Research Program pairs underrepresented students with opportunities to examine inequity through the IDSS Initiative for Combatting Systemic Racism.
Pair a decades-old program dedicated to creating research opportunities for underrepresented minorities and populations with a growing initiative committed to tackling the very issues at the heart of such disparities, and you’ll get a transformative partnership that only MIT can deliver.
Since 1986, the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) has led an institutional effort to prepare underrepresented students (minorities, women in STEM, or students with low socioeconomic status) for doctoral education by pairing them with MIT labs and research groups. For the past three years, the Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR), a cross-disciplinary research collaboration led by MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), has joined them in their mission, helping bring the issue full circle by providing MSRP students with the opportunity to use big data and computational tools to create impactful changes toward racial equity.
“ICSR has further enabled our direct engagement with undergrads, both within and outside of MIT,” says Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor of the Social Sciences, associate director of IDSS, and co-organizer for the initiative. “We’ve found that this line of research has attracted students interested in examining these topics with the most rigorous methods.”
The initiative fits well under the IDSS banner, as IDSS research seeks solutions to complex societal issues through a multidisciplinary approach that includes statistics, computation, modeling, social science methodologies, human behavior, and an understanding of complex systems. With the support of faculty and researchers from all five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the objective of ICSR is to work on an array of different societal aspects of systemic racism through a set of verticals including policing, housing, health care, and social media.
Where passion meets impact
Grinnell senior Mia Hines has always dreamed of using her love for computer science to support social justice. She has experience working with unhoused people and labor unions, and advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights. When applying to college, she focused her essay on using technology to help Syrian refugees.
“As a Black woman, it’s very important to me that we focus on these areas, especially on how we can use technology to help marginalized communities,” Hines says. “And also, how do we stop technology or improve technology that is already hurting marginalized communities?”
Through MSRP, Hines was paired with research advisor Ufuoma Ovienmhada, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. A member of Professor Danielle Wood’s Space Enabled research group at MIT’s Media Lab, Ovienmhada received funding from an ICSR Seed Grant and NASA’s Applied Sciences Program to support her ongoing research measuring environmental injustice and socioeconomic disparities in prison landscapes.
“I had been doing satellite remote sensing for environmental challenges and sustainability, starting out looking at coastal ecosystems, when I learned about an issue called ‘prison ecology,’” Ovienmhada explains. “This refers to the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental justice.”
Ovienmhada’s research uses satellite remote sensing and environmental data to characterize exposures to different environmental hazards such as air pollution, extreme heat, and flooding. “This allows others to use these datasets for real-time advocacy, in addition to creating public awareness,” she says.
Focused especially on extreme heat, Hines used satellite remote sensing to monitor the fluctuation of temperature to assess the risk being imposed on prisoners, including death, especially in states like Texas, where 75 percent of prisons either don’t have full air conditioning or have none at all.
“Before this project I had done little to no work with geospatial data, and as a budding data scientist, getting to work with and understanding different types of data and resources is really helpful,” Hines says. “I was also funded and afforded the flexibility to take advantage of IDSS’s Data Science and Machine Learning online course. It was really great to be able to do that and learn even more.”
Filling the gap
Much like Hines, Harvey Mudd senior Megan Li was specifically interested in the IDSS-supported MSRP projects. She was drawn to the interdisciplinary approach, and she seeks in her own work to apply computational methods to societal issues and to make computer science more inclusive, considerate, and ethical.
Working with Aurora Zhang, a grad student in IDSS’s Social and Engineering Systems PhD program, Li used county-level data on income and housing prices to quantify and visualize how affordability based on income alone varies across the United States. She then expanded the analysis to include assets and debt to determine the most common barriers to home ownership.
“I spent my day-to-day looking at census data and writing Python scripts that could work with it,” reports Li. “I also reached out to the Census Bureau directly to learn a little bit more about how they did their data collection, and discussed questions related to some of their previous studies and working papers that I had reviewed.”
Outside of actual day-to-day research, Li says she learned a lot in conversations with fellow researchers, particularly changing her “skeptical view” of whether or not mortgage lending algorithms would help or hurt home buyers in the approval process. “I think I have a little bit more faith now, which is a good thing.”
“Harvey Mudd is undergraduate-only, and while professors do run labs here, my specific research areas are not well represented,” Li says. “This opportunity was enormous in that I got the experience I need to see if this research area is actually something that I want to do long term, and I got more mirrors into what I would be doing in grad school from talking to students and getting to know faculty.”
Closing the loop
While participating in MSRP offered crucial research experience to Hines, the ICSR projects enabled her to engage in topics she’s passionate about and work that could drive tangible societal change.
“The experience felt much more concrete because we were working on these very sophisticated projects, in a supportive environment where people were very excited to work with us,” she says.
A significant benefit for Li was the chance to steer her research in alignment with her own interests. “I was actually given the opportunity to propose my own research idea, versus supporting a graduate student’s work in progress,” she explains.
For Ovienmhada, the pairing of the two initiatives solidifies the efforts of MSRP and closes a crucial loop in diversity, equity, and inclusion advocacy.
“I’ve participated in a lot of different DEI-related efforts and advocacy and one thing that always comes up is the fact that it’s not just about bringing people in, it’s also about creating an environment and opportunities that align with people’s values,” Ovienmhada says. “Programs like MSRP and ICSR create opportunities for people who want to do work that’s aligned with certain values by providing the needed mentoring and financial support.”