#39: Starting from space



Maria Zuber, vice president for research, MIT




I spent lots and lots of nights in my backyard learning all about things that were in the sky. Really, there was never anything else that I ever wanted to do but study space. I never thought about working. I never thought about getting a job. All I thought about was exploring space.

JS: From MIT, this is the Energy Initiative. Welcome to the show.

Today we’re talking to Maria Zuber, vice president for research at MIT. Maria has a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and geology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master of science and PhD, both in geophysics, from Brown University. She joined MIT in 1995 and became the first woman to lead a science department at MIT. Maria has been involved in more than half a dozen NASA planetary missions and was the first woman to lead a NASA spacecraft mission. In 2002, Discover magazine named her one of the 50 most important women in science and, in 2008, she was named to the US News/Harvard Kennedy School List of America’s Best Leaders. In 2013, President Obama appointed her to the National Science Board, and in 2018 she was reappointed by President Trump. In 2021, President Biden appointed Maria to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. At MIT, she leads MIT’s Climate Action Plan.

Maria, it’s an honor to have you, thanks so much for being here.

Maria Zuber: I’m really excited to do this.

JS: First off, you’ve been MIT’s vice president for research since 2013. You’ve been a team member on NASA planetary missions, you’re currently the co-chair of PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Needless to say, you might not have an average day, but I’m really curious, for someone who does so much, what are your days like?

MZ: For the last year, it’s been one Zoom meeting after another. It’s possible to go from a meeting with somebody on campus, to a meeting with somebody on D.C., to a meeting about Mars, and that can all be done in one day. Now, fortunately, thanks to science and vaccines the world is opening up again. Just planning the first in-person meeting in D.C. at the White House. It’ll be really exciting to start going places in person, in which cases it’ll be White House day, and then MIT day, and then there’ll be a NASA day somewhere in the mix as well. We adapt. But it keeps it pretty interesting when you can mix it up like that.

JS: I’d love to hear more about your background and just dig in to how you came to do all of these things where you are now. A few years ago, you wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about your experience growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, in coal country, is what I believe it’s called. First of all, I’d love to hear, what was it like growing up there?

MZ: The situation that you’re in, it feels normal to you because you don’t know other situations. Growing up there, it was a mining area, anthracite coal, and many of the people there worked in the mines. The mines were already starting to lay people off when I was small. My father was a police officer in a small town. He worked for the state police and he was one of the highest-paid people in town, and police officers, state police, are not particularly highly paid people. But that puts the situation in context.

The skies were very dark at night and I loved space as long as I can remember, and got interested in building telescopes and spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who quit school when he was in eighth grade to go work in the mines. I didn’t find out until after he died that he was able to keep a little bit of the money that he made in the mines and he bought himself a telescope. The story in my family is that there’s this recessive gene that causes some members of the family periodically to want to explore outer space. I spent lots and lots of nights in my backyard learning all about things that were in the sky. Really, there was never anything else that I ever wanted to do but study space. I never thought about working. I never thought about getting a job. All I thought about was exploring space. So, it all turned out all right.

JS: Do you remember the first time when you were young being interested in space? Was there something that kicked it off?

MZ: There are legends in my family about the first rockets being launched into space and me in my playpen jumping up and down, clapping and pointing at the television screen. Actually, from the time that I was in kindergarten and first grade, I was taking books out of the library that were high school textbooks on physics and space and just reading them. Actually, my parents, I think, thought there was something wrong with me. They were undoubtedly right about that. Some people choose what they do and I feel like my interest chose me.

JS: It sounds like you never questioned it. You just knew you were passionate about it and you went for it and you were never thinking about what career it would turn into, you were just interested in the subject matter.

MZ: I actually have counseled a lot of students who have said, “I really would love to go to college and major in physics or astrophysics or something, but my parents think that I should go to medical school or study business.” The fact of the matter is that, if you study what you like, there’s a much higher chance that you’re going to do really well in it. If you do well at whatever you decide to study, it really doesn’t close off options, it opens up options. There are just many pathways to doing what you want to do.

It could be you’ll never use anything specific that you studied in college, but the ability to learn how to think analytically, to solve problems, to write coherently, to communicate. These are all skills that you develop, that if you have them, really provide a pathway for you to develop yourself professionally and lead to, I think, really interesting opportunities.

JS: When you were in Pennsylvania growing up and you had these interests and you’re checking out these books that are so above your grade level, were you kind of a fish out of water? Or were there other people around that you could talk to about this, that were encouraging you, mentoring you, or were you just out on your own path going towards college?

MZ: I was pretty different. I had friends, I was not antisocial or anything. I really liked sports and I played a lot of sports. But really, my grandfather was the one that I spent time with and encouraged me. My parents never discouraged me. My parents just said, “Okay.” In fact, at one of the launches for the GRAIL mission, after the rocket went up, my parents were there and my father said, “Do you have any idea what it means to a parent to have a child do something like this?” I said, “Yes, it was fun, right?” You just never know what’s going to happen.

JS: You mentioned your grandfather, and in that same op-ed, you had wrote about how, I think, both of your grandfathers had black lung disease?

MZ: Yes. One of my grandfathers died before I was born, of black lung. My other grandfather, who I’ve talked about here, lived with it. He had a reclining chair in the living room that looked out, there was a nice park across the street from where he lived. He would, many nights, sleep in his recliner because he couldn’t breathe if he laid down in bed. This really drove home, I think, the human side of people who work incredibly hard to provide the world with energy.

JS: It’s interesting, you started your career, really, in space, like you said, in astrophysics. Then, more recently, it seems like you’ve focused more on climate and energy. How recent was it that you started changing your focus and why was that?

MZ: For my research, I still do space science. When MIT started to try to coalesce the interest, find where the interest was on campus, our president, President Reif, decided that there should be a year-long campus conversation about climate change to get the views of what people in our community thought and what they were interested in and what should the university’s role be in it. He asked me if I would shepherd that. I was really happy to do that because I had been the department head of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences for about eight years.

In that department, we had the climate people, the people at atmospheres, oceans, climate, so we have a program in that. We also have geophysicists and petrologists, geochemists, geologists, who study the earth and study the sub-surface of the earth. There were some ties to the fossil fuel industries in terms of, how do you mitigate environmental damage associated with the extraction of fossil fuels? Then, of course, you put the fluids in the ground afterwards, how do you prevent environmental damage? It’s a very diverse department.

In addition to those things, of course, we did outer space, we did other solar systems, we studied the deep mantle and the core of the earth, so very extremely diverse in terms of the intellectual capabilities. Within the department, it was extremely collegial and people with these very, very diverse interests and ways of looking at things actually got along personally very well, and in many cases collaborated, because we’re now trying to do modeling of the whole earth. If you think about it, the time scales associated for motions on the ground are very, very slow and then they’re much quicker in the oceans and then very, very quick in the atmosphere. But then you’ve got fluid running underground in the land.

All of these things have to come together in a way and so it’s very challenging to do that, but climate is a very holistic thing. You try to break things down into manageable pieces, but at the end of the day, you really have to be able to think holistically about the problem in order to do it.

Because I led the department and with many, many diverse interests, I was a logical person to do this, and in fact, had shared a couple of environment-related institute-level communities. I was happy to do it.

Then after we came up with the first climate action plan, our president asked me to stay involved in it because it was important to him. Although I have many, many other things that I’m responsible for, it was important to him that somebody who reported directly to him be associated with this. Because every time I met with him, I need to give him an update on how the climate plan is going. That justifiably keeps that work at the front of mind, I would say, to the president. He’s just gotten more interested as time has gone along.

JS: The climate plan that you mentioned, that was launched in 2015, and that was called the Plan for Action on Climate Change. Can you talk a little bit more about how that plan came to be and who else was involved and what it set out to do? You also mentioned this new plan that was announced this year. I’d also love to hear, why did you announce a new plan after you had already announced the first one?

MZ: Those are really good questions. In the first plan, that was motivated by a group of students who had made an appointment to go see the president and told him that MIT should divest of fossil fuels. His point of view is, “I don’t know how many people think this. We should certainly think about what MIT should do, how MIT could make the biggest impact with respect to mitigating climate change, but we should find out what our entire community thinks and everything can be on the table there.”

So, I convened a committee. It was a committee of students, of faculty, of staff, postdocs, and they spent a year meeting. They wrote a report which we then released to the community. We got comments, but we also held events over the course of the year and took all of that input together and made a plan. The plan had five pillars to it—the science, the technology, our own campuses as a testbed, reaching out to the community and communications. There were many aspects of it.

Then, after five years, we decided that it really made a lot of sense to revisit it. In the beginning of the fifth year of the plan, we convened another committee, it was led by professor Paul Joskow, and they set up a half dozen institute-wide symposia on different aspects of climate and clean energy.

We had people from within the MIT community and external people coming in to discuss topics of interest and what we’ve learned and where things were headed in the future. Four symposia, then the pandemic hit, so we had to go into remote mode and do the last remotely. Then we did, over the course of the pandemic year, over two dozen convening exercises to get further input from the community. We had student convenings, we did topical convenings, we had convenings about our decisions to, rather than divest, to engage with companies and work with them. We had two engagement forums. One was convened by MITEI, the other was convened by ESI [Environmental Solutions Initiative].

Looking at our campus as a testbed and then looking at industry and sustainability, and then what we call the Grand Challenges or the big outstanding questions that if we could solve then would really be game-changers. We got lots and lots of input. The one good thing about doing these convenings remotely—I don’t think any of us want to go back to full remoteness—but some of these we had 1,500 people, 1,600 people. Now, in the in-person symposium, we filled up Kresge on the first one on climate science, which was absolutely fantastic. We got a lot of input from our alums that they were able to tune in to these, and so really were able to raise the level of participation.

The outcome of that was no one thought that we should abandon any of the things that we were doing in the first climate action. Nobody says, “We know enough about climate science. We can just put that one to bed.” Quite the contrary. The real difference between the first development of the Climate Action Plan and the second was that in the first plan, there were core groups of people around the campus who were extremely, extremely committed to aspects of the science, aspects of clean energy. Some in terms of activism. Then a lot of people who said, “Yeah, this is a pretty important problem.”

Whereas, when we five years later looked at it, virtually everyone we talked to said that this is an imperative, that MIT step up its game, that yes, we’re doing things, but CO2 continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, and we really need a full-out, all-of-institute effort on this.

Interestingly, we looked at who was doing climate and clean energy research. For example, we found out that there was a lot more climate and energy research going on outside of MITEI than in MITEI. People who were taking the kind of research that they were doing and thinking, “How could I contribute to climate or sustainability? How can I make a contribution there?” We found that the interest had just grown. That really provided an opportunity for us to really think bigger, and that’s what we hope that we’ve done in terms of a cohesive plan to get a lot of people involved.

Another good example, I think, is the SESAME program within MITEI, which is really looking at, how do we decarbonize the energy sector? Really going in and looking at serious decarbonization scenarios. Let’s put the technology in there, let’s look at the efficiencies, let’s look at how much sunlight a place gets, let’s look at the level of maturity of battery technology. Then adding in the economics to it, when do things become economically feasible? It turns out to be a very useful tool for planning how we’re going to really make that transition.

JS: Absolutely, right. Outcomes like you said, like SESAME, that are gaining so much traction are really tangible outcomes of things like this, and really, I think, lend credence to people watching things like the symposia and hearing all these great grand ideas, but things like that show that MIT is creating things that are making a difference and not just talking about them.

MZ: Yes. With regard to the Climate Action Plan, we listened to the community. I think the two big, big new things that we started were a Grand Challenges program. We talk about the fact that we don’t have all of the technology that we need. President Reif articulated the vision, “We need to take what we know, and we need to go as fast as we can with what we know, but we don’t know enough. We need to, in parallel, be learning new science and feeding that new knowledge into technological discoveries, and then having that feed into policies that are necessary to decarbonize.”

The Grand Challenges Competition, we asked our community to give us their ideas. We had nearly 100 initial letters that were submitted. It was just extraordinary. Four hundred faculty involved in some way, shape, or form. We’ve now down-selected to 28 finalists. Each of those finalists has been given $100K in order to develop their ideas. Each one of those finalists is being asked to, wherever appropriate, consider policy implications. What policies would be necessary if you have this discovery? What policies would you need to scale it up? Now, it could be some of the Grand Challenges are very policy intensive. Others not as much, but we’re asking people to keenly think about that.

The other new program is the Climate and Sustainability Consortium. That was started by our dean of engineering, Anantha Chandrakasan. I should say that the Grand Challenges, Richard Lester is spearheading that with my help. He’s really taking the lead on that. For the Climate Sustainability Consortium, it’s companies, non-energy companies, because MITEI has been working very, very effectively and collaboratively in the energy sectors. Looking at companies who are, I will say, out at the cutting edge. They may have made commitments that they are going to decarbonize. They’ve made these commitments and they don’t know how to do it. They know how to start but they want to be first-movers. Choosing companies in a range of sectors so that they are motivated to be collaborative as opposed to competitive. In that, working very well together already, and that’s being led now by Jeff Grossman and Elsa Olivetti. They’re off to a spirited start. But really hearing from industry about what they need, what’s it going to take to get there. Then the discoveries that are happening within MIT, getting them out to those companies so that they can deploy. Then these companies acting essentially as role models for other companies in their sector. That is our goal.

We’ve also made it quite clear that these companies within the Climate Sustainability Consortium have access to researchers in MITEI and hoping for additional collaboration. This is all about collaboration and getting the best ideas together so we can push things forward as fast as we can.

JS: I think another really interesting part of the plan is MIT’s footprint itself. I think in the first plan, the goal was to reduce MIT’s net carbon emissions by 32% from 2014 levels by the year 2030. When the second plan was announced, MIT was on the path to reach that target. The second plan set a new goal, I believe, to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2026. Is that right?

MZ: Yes, that’s correct. There will be offsets involved in that. We dearly would love to do it without offsets. We don’t have the technology to do it, we don’t know how to do it, no one else does either, but we’re going to get there as quickly as we can using offsets but not stop there. We’re on track from the first plan. We did things with our own campus, we went from steam to hot water, which reduced emissions.

We also started a solar farm down in North Carolina, 650 acres, which actually caused a coal-fired power plant to be retired. People said, “Why did you do that in New England?” There was more space where we were looking at, and it had the benefit of really replacing clean solar energy from energy that had come from coal emissions, so all that was very positive.

The interesting thing about that—what we call a power purchase agreement—is that it was a partnership. The fact that MIT was involved in it, we actually didn’t adopt much risk because the provider was willing to build the solar farm because MIT was involved in it. It just showed how you can get other entities, whether they be companies or organizations. We’re now thinking about, can we get towns involved, other academic institutions? Our colleagues in facilities and sustainability are really looking at trying to really raise the level of our partnerships to do more of these agreements.

Then, of course, in parallel, we want to decarbonize the campus. We’re doing this at the same time that our researchers have ambitions for more energy-intensive machines. We opened the Nano building, which has big fans blowing, and still we reduced our emissions at least slightly. How do we keep the ambitions of institute researchers moving forward as we’re trying to decarbonize? Part of what we’re doing is renovating our buildings. We’re now trying to electrify our vehicle fleet. We’ve begun that. We’re putting more charging stations on campus. We’ll be installing more solar cells.

Also, the College of Computing has expressed an interest in working with us to, using AI, to optimize energy usage in buildings. Over in your office, you might like the temperature to be 68°, and in my office, I might like the temperature to be 72°. But if we could optimize it and make it be 70°, okay, well, I might be willing to wear a sweater. If we could figure out how much energy we would be saving by doing these things, the idea is to really instrument the campus and then get everybody’s preferences and needs into this. We have the capability to do this so we really ought to be at the forefront.

I’ve told our colleagues in the College of Computing if we could figure out how to do this, God, there’s a start-up there. Think of all the organizations that would love to be able to optimize their energy usage. Although knowing us, I could see us just giving it away. That would be a very fine thing as far as I’m concerned.

JS: You mentioned the College of Computing. Technology is obviously a really pivotal part of this and MIT is very focused on technology, but MIT also has a School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. You just made me think, as we transition away from carbon fuels, how important to that effort are the social sciences?

MZ: Oh my God, in some ways, at least in the near term, they may be the most important. I want to say, the reception that we’ve gotten from the new Climate Action Plan has been just exceedingly positive from our community. Of course, I really like it when people like what we’ve done, but really, what it is, is that we listen to people. I think the reason that we are where we are is because people look at the plan and everybody sees that there’s something in it for them. In the humanities and social sciences, human behavior plays such an important role.

We’re in this path to zero. All of us are going to have to live our lives a little bit differently than we did. We have certain routines and we have certain comfort levels and we’re not going to be able to do everything exactly the way we used to do it. The humanities and the social sciences can play a remarkably important role there.

The other thing that we heard a great deal from many parts of our community where the humanities and social sciences can really play a role, is lots and lots of desire to help the developing world. We cannot solve this problem just for wealthy nations that can afford to use the newest gadgets. We have to find energy solutions that work and they have to be the least expensive.

We also have to be concerned about equity and we have to be concerned about justice. Individuals who are being displaced by rising seas, changes in agricultural conditions really dictate that poverty is a real risk there. In fact, we recently got just a very, very generous gift within J-PAL for the King Climate Action Initiative that is dealing with things like poverty and displaced individuals and adaptation of individuals. It’s so important for us to look at the challenges that everybody is going to face and to make sure that we are developing solutions that are going to work for everybody. In the case of adaptation, since we’re already seeing the effects of climate change, that we take into account the people who aren’t in a position to be at the table making the decisions. There needs to be representation at the table making sure that we understand the needs of everybody.

JS: I want to pivot a little bit to talk about some of this work you’re doing outside of MIT, which is huge. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, how did you become involved in that and what’s happening there now? What is that all about?

MZ: It’s not one of those things that you apply for. When I got a phone call about whether I was interested in helping the administration to do this, I called President Reif up and said, “I got asked to do this and I need to think about whether I should do it.” He went, “What do you mean whether you should do it? Of course, you’re going to do it and we have to figure out how to make that happen.” I’m one of the three co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The other two are Frances Arnold from Caltech, who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Then Eric Lander, who’s a member of our faculty and president of the Broad Institute.

In the Obama administration, Eric was one of the external co-chairs, and now he’s directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy as the internal co-chair of PCAST, and the president has decided to raise the director of OSTP to be a cabinet position. This really underscores how important the president views the role of science in American society.

The president wrote a letter articulating what his priorities for science are in his administration and it was climate change. Well, first, pandemic, what have we learned from the pandemic and how can that help us with future health challenges? Then climate change. Then how do we make sure that the United States stays competitive in science and technology? How do we make sure that everybody in the United States benefits from discoveries in science and technology? Then, finally, how do we make sure that all Americans have the opportunity to participate in STEM fields? When I saw this letter, I was just like, “This is fantastic. Everything in this letter is something that I—and many, many, many others—care so much about.” It’s just an honor and a privilege to be able to work on problems like that.

This council, it does what the president asks, it doesn’t do things that the president doesn’t ask. If there’s something that we think of that we think relates to this letter, we could go ask the president if he would like us to study it and he could say yes or no. PCAST writes reports. There are many committees and organizations that write really good reports, the National Academies obviously do, and there are many other organizations that write reports that are important. The unique thing about PCAST is that if we write a report, then it comes out from the president. The best PCAST report is one that identifies something that needs to be done, and then an organization that is responsible for it and who needs to implement it.

JS: The reports and the outcomes of this, is it going to be public, are people going to be able to follow along?

MZ: Yes, they’ll all be public, the meetings are public. We’re spending a lot of time thinking about, how can we engage more broadly with the public? Obviously, if a recommendation comes out that affects a federal agency, scientists will have always accessed those reports. But how can we convey to the American people that what we’re doing, in terms of the science agenda in the country, that we have them in mind when we’re doing these things? I think scientists, our street cred has improved a lot thanks to the vaccines in the last year. I think people clearly see that it has been science that has gotten us on the path of returning to normal.

There is an entrée there, but we need to be able to speak to people, we can’t talk in code like we do to each other. That’s a lesson that I think all of us have to learn. Actually, I think many of the young people entering science now, they’re just thinking much more naturally about that. How do we communicate better? It’s something we ought to be doing.

JS: Absolutely. We’re running short on time but we have some listener questions. We don’t have time for all of them but I have at least a couple to throw at you, if you don’t mind.

MZ: Okay.

JS: Great. First question, is it necessary to invent new technology to beat climate change or is that technology already available?

MZ: There is technology available, but we don’t have the technology that we need to get to get to net-zero on the timescale that we need to do it. If you think about it, we don’t know how to remove carbon dioxide from the air cost-efficiently, in a way that you can actually afford to deploy it. Heavy transportation, so heavy trucks, air transport, rail transport, and buildings—cement is a great emitter of greenhouse gases because of limestone, there’s CO3 which emits CO2. These are examples of areas where we just don’t have the technology that we need.

I’ll say advanced nuclear, too. We’re not going to be able to get to zero completely on renewables. We can do a lot more with renewables, and we should do a lot more with renewables, but we’re going to need something beyond renewables. That is going to be in the fission and fusion realm. We need technology there. Then, finally, battery technology. The batteries keep getting better but we need all kinds of batteries. Little batteries, large batteries for long term storage. There are many areas where we need new technology.

JS: Next question, how do you know if energy is the right career path for you?

MZ: That’s a good question. How do you know if energy is the right career path for you? If you can’t stay away from thinking about it, actually. So many of the young people these days have a real social conscience. Twenty years ago, we had many students, like myself, who wanted to study something just because it was interesting to study. I think many, many of the students coming through the system now really have interests in all kinds of fields but want to use what they learn to be able to help other people. If that’s the case, energy is one of the areas where you can really be helping humanity.

JS: That’s a good note to end on. Maria, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for being here.

MZ: I really enjoyed it. Really happy to participate. Thank you very much.

Press inquiries: miteimedia@mit.edu

We're hiring! Learn more and apply