Storytelling, STEM, and changing the conversation at Comic-Con

Katy Croff Bell

The Media Lab panel at San Diego Comic-Con covered inclusion, exploration, and the reciprocity between fiction and research at the Lab

At San Diego Comic-Con 2018, astronaut Cady Coleman moderated a panel entitled “Creating the Future at the MIT Media Lab: How Comics Inspire Students’ Work (and Vice Versa)." Members of the panel were Danielle Wood, head of the Space Enabled research group; Alexis Hope, a PhD student in the Civic Media group; Katy Croff Bell, head of the Open Ocean Initiative; and Selam Gano, a recent MIT grad who was a UROP in two Media Lab research groups. Their discussion ranged from deep-sea exploration to breastfeeding; from diversity in STEM to satellite data. Here, Selam Gano shares some reflections on her time at the Media Lab and her experience on the panel.

I worked as a UROP in the Media Lab for most of my time as an MIT undergrad. I was mesmerized by the place, where so much interesting research happened and there was so much crossing over of art, engineering, and science. I first started out as a freshman, helping Jie Qi in Responsive Environments with her fun and engaging "circuit stickers" project, which was a great introduction to what the Media Lab was like. As a sophomore, I wanted a UROP I could dedicate a significant amount of time to in a field I was interested in, robotics. I found a posting for the DCP Project, a construction robot, and that led me to working with Julian Leland and Steve Keating in Mediated Matter for the next two years. I learned so much—so much more than I could have learned from class alone—and really understood what it meant to be a researcher. I was even lucky enough to be there and work with Julian, Steve, and Levi Cai to produce the world’s largest 3D-printed object as a test of our system. I entered my senior year after Jie and Steve both defended their theses, and Julian graduated. I then switched to perform a UROP and senior thesis in my home department (Mechanical Engineering) before graduating this past June, but I still feel, after all the time I spent there, a part of the Media Lab community. It’s still one of my favorite places on campus.

However, I never would have guessed that I’d be invited to speak about these experiences, alongside other such incredible and accomplished Media Lab students, scientists, and faculty. Part of the reason I was invited to the Comic-Con panel was because of a video I co-directed as a student blogger in the MIT Admissions office. We remind people of the regular-action admissions decisions date (3/14, of course—Pi Day!) with a fun video each year, and in 2017, we decided to draw inspiration from a new Marvel character, Riri Williams. Riri is a black teenager who is a student at MIT, lives in Simmons dormitory, and collects materials around campus to build her own Iron Man suit. She gets a visit from Tony Stark, and he asks her to take up the Iron Man mantle as a new hero, Ironheart.

As much as Riri is fictional, she is also real. The video we made was directed by a black woman at MIT, starred a black woman at MIT, and we even used a black woman’s dorm room at MIT in Simmons Hall as Riri’s room in our video. Fiction is really a collection of humanity’s imagination, and it is important that people are able to imagine someone like Riri, and that the phrase “MIT Student” does not bring to mind only one type of profile or background. I think, with our video that visualized the original comic, backed by a name like MIT, we made a small change to the collective narrative on STEM fields, and who exactly “belongs” in the scientific community.

Fiction is really a collection of humanity’s imagination, and it is important that . . . the phrase 'MIT Student' does not bring to mind only one type of profile or background.

I essentially said all of this at our Comic-Con panel, and I was the first speaker in our lineup. By talking about my work at the Media Lab, I felt I was quite literally showing our audience an example of a real-life “Riri”—an engineering student at MIT that worked on an incredible project. By talking about our video, I hoped to emphasize the importance of stories in shaping what we imagine is possible—including who we imagine is possible. Both of these combined—a construction robotics project and a short sci-fi film—reminded me why I loved the Media Lab so much, because it is a place where people who appreciate and combine all sorts of disciplines can come together in a powerful way. 

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