Down to Earth

David Silverman Photography

By Ari Daniel

THERE WAS A MOMENT LAST APRIL when Danielle Wood ’05, SM ’08, PhD ’12 could go no farther. In her research she often looks toward the cosmos, but on this day, she was confronted by an earthbound obstacle: if she and her companions pushed their motorboat ahead, the outboard engine would strangle itself on a thick tangle of roots, stems, and leaves. Open blue water should have rippled before her, “but instead it was fully green,” says Wood, one of MIT’s newest faculty members. A thick mat of water hyacinth was choking this section of the So River in the West African country of Benin.

An invasive species from the other side of the world, the plant is wreaking havoc across the waterways of Africa. “It creates areas of standing water that allow mosquitos to breed and spread disease,” Wood says. “And it also blocks fishing, boating, and other economic activities.”

Wood, whose background includes satellite design, systems engineering, and technology policy, traveled to the coastal city of Cotonou to meet with Beninese entrepreneur Fohla Mouftaou, cofounder of Green Keeper Africa, which has a creative approach to managing the water hyacinth. The startup pays community members to harvest the plant and converts it into an absorbent fiber called GK-SORB that removes oil-based waste. Green Keeper Africa delivers GK-SORB kits to West African companies who use them to clean small and large oil spills, and then it collects the used kits for proper disposal.

It’s an innovative solution, but there’s a problem: it’s difficult to predict where the water hyacinth will be on any given day. Human behavior and a changing climate are causing it to grow in nonseasonal patterns. So Wood and her team are collaborating with Mouftaou and Green Keeper Africa to design a network of water monitoring sensors and use data from NASA and private satellites to track the plant’s location. They’re also developing computer models that consider environmental data and simulate the potential consequences of various community interactions with the plant.

“We are outsiders—it’s actually not up to us to change this issue,” Wood says. “Our method will be to ask people in the community, ‘What do you think should be done?’” She and her team can then suggest new technology designs in response to that input.

When Wood learned about efforts using NASA satellite data to address real-world environmental issues, she saw a way to fuse her twin passions.

These efforts are just one example of Wood’s work as director of the new Space Enabled research group at MIT’s Media Lab. She uses technology and designs from space (like satellites, life support technology, and information management tools) to empower countries to achieve the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including ending extreme poverty and providing universal access to food, water, energy, and health care.

For Wood, it’s a matter of advancing justice, helping to correct an unequal distribution of technology and opportunity reinforced by centuries of  “racism, colonialism, and imperialism.” In high school, she recognized “it’s hard to be a black woman in the world—something that’s actually been true for most of history.” She cites gaps in performance achievements, salary rates, and health care statistics for black women in the United States. She says, “Although black women throughout history have found clever and resourceful ways to thrive, we continue to overcome a double legacy of racial and gender discrimination.” For a while, Wood separately cultivated her love of space and engineering (by interning, for example, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as a 17 year old) and her commitment to social justice (by traveling annually, for instance, to Kenya to volunteer at a school for girls from one of Nairobi’s low-income communities).

Later, when Wood learned about efforts using NASA satellite data to address real-world environmental issues, she saw a way to fuse her twin passions.

“I could look for the social implications of space and make that a key part of my work to contribute to the lives of women around the world,” she says. Through Space Enabled, she now has a platform to collaborate with development leaders as they use technology, policy, and design to move their communities forward.

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