What is your current research?
iCons 2 research team wrote about the importance and feasibility of implementing elements of the Living Building Challenge, a set of building performance requirements that ensure net zero or net positive environmental impact, here at UMass. It was through this research and the iCons connection to the UMass Carbon Mitigation Task Force where I met Ajla Aksamija— a member of the Task Force at the time, a former professor of architecture at UMass, and an expert in sustainable building design and construction. I stayed in touch with Ajla and discussed the possibility of her advising me on research in the field of sustainable design.
My research, with Ajla’s guidance, explores biomimicry (biologically inspired design) and passive design strategies as methods for the development of sustainable housing in Malawi, Africa. Malawi is among the poorest countries in the world and much of its population resides in inadequate dwellings which provide little shelter from weather events including droughts, flooding, and extreme heat conditions. Biomimicry takes advantage of natural methods of coping with extreme conditions which have evolved over thousands of years and uses those systems as inspiration for low-tech solutions to problems. Homes may utilize passive design to maximize natural light, ventilation, and cooling features without electricity by modifying the initial structure and orientation of each dwelling. The use of both biomimicry and passive design can result in highly efficient homes.
It is my hope that this research will be beneficial in enabling efficient, comfortable, and inexpensive housing structures to be implemented across Malawi, Africa and in areas with similar climates. Not only can improved housing significantly better the quality of life for Malawians, but it is also closely linked to improved public health, which is a crucial element in empowering Malawians to end their cycle of poverty.
How has iCons helped you in your academic career?
When I first joined the iCons program, I experienced a stifling case of "imposter syndrome." I felt that in a room full of brilliant young scientists, I did not belong and had somehow been accepted into the program by mistake. By pushing through those uncomfortable feelings, I eventually understood that the only difference between myself and the intimidating freshmen and sophomores sitting around me was that I lacked confidence in myself and in my abilities as a scientist.
iCons helped me feel more comfortable in situations that seem to be out of my depth and to view these as opportunities to learn from those around me. I no longer hesitate to share my thoughts and ideas and I recognize that every individual, regardless of their title or scientific background, can provide invaluable insight. Through improving my self-confidence and changing the way I view problems, iCons helped me transform from a student who enjoys science into a motivated, passionate, and well-prepared researcher.
Why did you choose UMass Amherst?
I chose to come to UMass for many reasons. I love the fact that the school, and the entire Amherst community, values environmental protection and restoration. I knew that I could become involved with many local organizations that share this goal. I also chose UMass because of the diverse interests and backgrounds among the student body. While I knew that my environmental interests would be supported here, I also knew that I would be surrounded by thousands of other students with completely different interests and areas of research from whom I could learn. This is the type of environment in which I felt that I could thrive in personally and academically.
I am lucky to have found a community at UMass where my personal values surrounding sustainability and the protection of natural resources are shared by many, while also being lucky enough to interact with and learn from students with different lifestyles and interests every day.
Tell us something that is interesting or unique about you?
I am in the process of transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle. I am working to eliminate single-use products (disposable shampoo bottles, plastic food packaging, takeout containers, napkins, and paper towels) from my life. This process has also meant that I furnished my house with almost entirely secondhand furniture.
I am hopeful that the low-waste movement will have a significant impact on landfills in the future. There is a Jewish maxim that states “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” Environmental regulation and larger institutional changes are necessary, but each of us makes dozens of small-impact decisions every day that we should make with the best intentions.
What do you hope to do after UMass Amherst?
I plan to move out west and spend time working with the National Park Service. While I have really enjoyed my academic experience so far, I can't wait to see more of our beautiful country and deepen what I have learned in class through real-life involvement. I feel that the best way to grow as an individual is to travel and experience a new lifestyle, and I know that working to protect national parks is an experience that I don't want to miss out on. I am thankful to UMass, and especially to the iCons program, for preparing and motivating me to continue to grow as a person and as a scientist.