Global energy adventures

Energy Studies Minor ’15 grad Cecilio Aponte’s solar summer in India

Francesca McCaffrey    ·    August 4, 2015    ·    MITEI

One year ago, Cecilio Aponte ’15, was on a mission. He was also on a motorcycle. He’d just disembarked after a long bus ride to a part of rural India he’d never seen before, and had jumped onto the back of a motorcycle with a driver who was equally unfamiliar.

For Cecilio, it was all part of the journey towards a career in energy.

The midday ride was not, as Cecilio is quick to point out, as impulsive as it may sound. He did know one thing about his moto-companion: he worked for Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO), an organization at the forefront of the movement for solar lighting in India. Thanks to the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI), Cecilio had the opportunity to work at SELCO to gain technological experience abroad.

“I really wanted to do a MISTI program. I was part of MISTI Israel the summer before, working in an inorganic chemistry lab, and it was an amazing experience, and I thought, ‘I need to do this again. I need to go to another country.”’

After deciding Indian culture greatly interested him, Cecilio then had to iron out plans for employment. As a student in the Energy Studies Minor, Cecilio was specifically looking for jobs with an energy focus, and MISTI was there to help.

“MISTI had a bunch of resources. I looked through all of them for something relevant. I definitely wanted to do development work, because there are great opportunities for development work in India since it is one place in the world where energy is not accessible to all. You can’t really do it in the U.S., because everyone already has access to energy. India is the perfect place, because there is a lot of need and there are also people working on creating solutions.”

Cecilio caught the name SELCO drifting through several of his encounters with development work in the school year leading up to his planned summer abroad. “It came up in a bunch of different places. I was taking the D-Lab Energy class for the Energy Studies Minor. The first lesson was on solar lighting, and SELCO was an example. And I was also in the e4Dev (MITEI startup Energy for Development student group) lectures, and one of the presidents of the group was working with SELCO on one of their projects. I asked the MISTI director about it, and she actually had a contact there.”

Once in India, Cecilio began work for SELCO Foundation, SELCO’s nonprofit arm. The main arm of SELCO is concerned with installations and research on potential customers, but the SELCO Foundation’s innovative personality was more up Cecilio’s alley.

“The SELCO Foundation is doing new, relevant, interesting things. They are undertaking research and product development and going out into communities and assessing problems to help create solutions that work.”

One of SELCO’s largest areas of research is in solar. At the time of Cecilio’s internship, a new area of exploration for the group was solar lanterns, a field that has seen a recent boom in India. Solar panels were the parent company’s historic focus, so last summer, new research on the market for solar lanterns was needed so that the Foundation could branch out.

Enter Cecilio and the motorcycle.

“SELCO had never done a formal study of solar lanterns,” Cecilio recounts, “so it was my job to go into the field and collect data. My first task was a literature review to see what the major players were doing with solar lanterns, to understand the problems and the benefits to different stakeholders.

“The second and third stages of my research were focused more on specific stakeholders, so I got to interview suppliers of solar lanterns, calling them, going to their offices in Bangalore, seeing them, talking to them about what they think. Then I was able to develop a field survey. I developed a bunch of questions and then took the bus to a part of rural India I’d never been to before to meet a colleague from SELCO. He drove me around on a motorcycle asking people questions.”

The experience has made an impact. Cecilio is quick to describe how his MISTI experience in India has solidified his career path.

“I know I want to work in energy,” he says. “I’m not sure yet in what capacity, whether it’s doing materials science and engineering for a solar company, or development work in another country, or sales and marketing. I don’t know. But it has to be in energy. And I think my work with SELCO and my experience in India was really cool because I got to see not only solar, but how you can have an off-grid, sustainable community. My work with SELCO was relevant to energy efficiency, and many of the skills I gained in research and reaching out to different stakeholders and interacting with people to find out their problems were things I’d never done in materials science or at MIT. So I learned a lot of great skills, and whatever job I do, they’re going to be valuable.”

The takeaways aren’t all academic, of course, and Cecilio is happy to reminisce. “There is this one photo of my friends and me on a mountaintop in India that, every time I see it, I go ‘Aah, I miss that place,”’ he says. “Also, my coworkers. They were great. There was me, one other MIT student, Indian interns, French interns, an intern from Colombia, another from the UK. It was really international, it was fun, and above all, it was life changing.”

Cecilio Aponte graduated from the Energy Studies Minor program this spring as a Materials Science and Engineering major; he is spending the summer on a MISTI program in Singapore with other MIT students working in energy and development.

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